We are faced here with the difficult issue of whether a child of divorced parents shall be deemed unemancipated due to his voluntary addiction to illegal drugs. This court finds that the use of such drugs does not constitute a legally accepted handicap which would trigger the continued obligation of support beyond the point at which emancipation would otherwise occur. The public policy of this State strongly discourages the protection of persons involved with such illicit activity. So too, it is unreasonable for a court to conclude that child support and medical expenses be paid for years after such obligation would terminate for a non-addicted child.
The parties were married in 1966, and divorced by a final judgment entered March 2, 1982. Plaintiff-wife received custody of the couple's three children and defendant-husband became obligated to pay $300 a week support, allocated $175 as alimony and $125 as child support. The child support was to be reduced to $75 a week upon the emancipation of the first child. When the next child was emancipated, defendant's obligation was to decrease again, allocated $150 as alimony and $75 as child support. All payments were to terminate upon the emancipation of the last child, although the agreement was not specific
as to events which would constitute emancipation. In addition to monetary support, defendant was to pay all medical and prescription drug expenses for the children. There was also a provision by which defendant conveyed to plaintiff all right, title and interest in the marital home in exchange for a second mortgage in the amount of $20,000, at a rate of 10% compounded annually, due and payable upon the youngest child's graduation from high school.
The youngest son, in fact, graduated from high school in June 1989 and defendant moved to enforce the property settlement agreement with respect to the mortgage. In a cross-motion, plaintiff attempts to offset the mortgage amount by certain considerable monies which she paid on behalf of the children and seeks contribution from their father.
This court now focuses solely upon the factors surrounding the treatment of the eldest child's drug problem, the costs of which constitute much of the credit claimed here. At age 17, he left high school and entered a drug rehabilitation program, KIDS of Bergen County, the initial fee for which was $5000. Defendant had agreed to pay one-half of that amount. Other financial obligations were part of the program, according to plaintiff, and included such things as transporting groups of children back and forth to the center and a monthly fee of $75. Defendant continued to pay child support throughout the 56-week recovery period. After completing the program, John, Jr. returned to high school and graduated in August 1986, at age 19, with straight A's. He was even granted a $10,000 college scholarship. This court has no difficulty finding that he was unemancipated up to and including the point at which he graduated from high school. Accordingly, a portion of the costs of the drug treatment shall be credited against the money owed to defendant on the mortgage. Had he made use of his scholarship and continued his education, the father's obligation to support would have undoubtedly been continued. However, this did not occur.
In February 1988, the son moved out of his mother's home and into his father's, at which point defendant unilaterally terminated child support. John, Jr. stayed with his father for ten months, holding approximately ten different jobs during that period. He resumed using drugs, was asked to leave his father's apartment, and in December 1988, John, Jr. returned to the KIDS Program, almost two years after his high school graduation. Plaintiff contends that her son was never emancipated because his continued drug addiction rendered him incapable of caring for himself. She continued to support him and paid for the drug therapy a second time. Apparently on the road to success, the young man planned to become a drug counsellor and go on to college, but in May 1989, at age 22, he began using drugs again and left his mother's home. Plaintiff requests that this court find John, Jr., yet unemancipated and seeks further credit for money expended, as and for his care, during the period which she terms his "disability."
The duty of a parent to support a child is imposed by statute. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 provides for the "care, custody, education and maintenance of the children . . . as the circumstances of the parties and the nature of the case shall render fit, reasonable and just." This duty is shared equally by both mother and father and continues until the child is emancipated. N.J.S.A. 9:2-4.
Emancipation is the "act by which one who was unfree, or under the power and control of another is rendered free or set at liberty and made his own master." Blacks Law Dictionary (rev. 4 ed. 1968) at 613. The term is customarily used with reference to the relationship between parent and child which involves an "entire surrender of the right to the care, custody and earnings of such child as well as a renunciation of parental duties." Ibid. The age at which a child is deemed to be sufficiently able to maintain an independent existence has been influenced by society's perception. Today, it is not unusual for a parent to support a child through his or her 20s in order for all avenues of higher education to be explored.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has enumerated various standards by which a child becomes emancipated, thereby releasing the parental right to custody and discharging the duty to support. Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 443 A.2d 1031 (1982). Emancipation can occur at the child's marriage, by order of the court based on the child's best interests, or by attainment of a certain age. While the age of majority, being 18, establishes prima facie proof of emancipation, the facts of each case must be addressed. Id. at 543, 443 A.2d 1031. Courts are frequently called upon to decide this issue in the context of divorce or separation cases in which education expenses, along with continued child support payments and medical coverage, are sought past the legal age of majority. State courts have applied the obligation to provide educational costs as circumstances demand. See Khalaf v. Khalaf, 58 ...