On January 19, 2016, Governor Christie signed into law bill A2721/S1046, which provides for the automatic termination of child support without court order under certain circumstances. The law did not take effect until 2017 under N.J.S. 2A:17-56.67, et seq. Accordingly, the law provides that “[u]nless otherwise provided in a court order or judgment, the obligation to pay child support shall terminate by operation of law without order by the court on the date that a child marries, dies, or enters the military service. In addition, a child support obligation shall terminate by operation of law without order by the court when a child reaches 19 years of age unless: (1) another age for the termination of the obligation to pay child support, which shall not extend beyond the date the child reaches 23 years of age, is specified in a court order; (2) a written request seeking the continuation of child support is submitted to the court by a custodial parent prior to the child reaching the age of 19 in accordance with subsection b of this section; or (3) the child receiving support is in an out-of-home placement through the Division of Child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families.”
Traditionally, the party paying child support, also known as the obligor or payor would have the burden to raise the issue of emancipation from child support, and child support orders would generally continue absent such an application. The foregoing statute shifts the burden to the party receiving child support, (“obligee” or “payee”). Thus, the onus has now been placed on the custodial parent to submit a request for an exception to the automatic termination of support. The custodial parent must submit a written request, on an appropriate form which can be obtained from the Administrative Office of the Courts. The request must be submitted with accompanying documentation, including a projected future date when support will terminate. The following circumstances are considered valid grounds for such a request: the child is still enrolled in high school or other secondary educational program; the child is a student in a post-secondary education program (college or vocational) and is enrolled for the number of hours or courses the school considers to be full-time attendance during some part of each of any five calendar months of the year; or the child has a physical or mental disability, as determined by a federal or State government agency, that existed prior to the child reaching the age of 19 and requires continued child support.
There is also a “catch-all” provision under the statute that a custodial parent may file a motion with the court seeking to extend the child support obligation beyond the date the child reaches 19 years of age due to exceptional circumstances as may be approved by the court. This provision is obviously not automatic and subject to judicial discretion. An example of such a circumstance may be a child that suffers from a long term illness or injury and is compelled to take a period of time off from their studies and is likewise unable to work during that same period of time.
This new legislation is most notable for those parties whose child support is monitored and collected via the Probation Division of the Superior Court (“Probation”). Probation is directed to provide both parents with at least two written notices of a proposed termination of child support. Moreover, the statute provides that all Order for child support entered after the effective date must include information as to the anticipated termination date for each child.
The statute further goes on to establish an even more stringent requirement that child support shall not extend beyond the child’s 23rd birthday. A child beyond the age of 23 must establish, by court order, that the child or parent is entitled to ongoing financial maintenance beyond the age of 23. Exceptional circumstances, such as a mental or physical disability are required for such relief. It should be noted that the term “child support,” is no longer utilized beyond age 23 and such is deemed “financial maintenance.” Moreover, this provision does not extinguish a parent’s legal or court ordered obligations for college contribution and the like.
In summary, this new legislation has made it easier for a payor parent’s support obligation to be terminated. In essence, the law automates what was previously available upon an application by the payor spouse. Custodial parents should be aware of the law and proactively seek continuation of child support, based upon their child’s college or vocational plans after high school. Those who are actively negotiating child support orders should be aware that there must be language in the order anticipating when child support will terminate. Clearly, with younger children, this may be difficult to predict. Experienced family law attorneys will be able to craft language that will both satisfy the statute while protecting their respective client’s rights.