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Emancipation Because of Poor Grades

1. Can I emancipate my child because he is “bombing out” of community college with poor grades?

A very common scenario is when child starts bombing out of community college or a four-year college, and then noncustodial parents then wants to try to emancipate the child. Thus, the vexing issue is whether a noncustodial parent can emancipate a child if he achieves poor grades.

An illustrative is the case of Keno v. Pilgrim, A-395-04T3. Here, the plaintiff, Deborah Keno, appealed from two orders entered in the Family Part, Essex County, on October 2004. The first order was entered on October 1, 2004. This order denied the plaintiff’s request for an increase of child support from the defendant, Franklyn Pilgrim. The second order refused to vacate or modify a July 26, 2004 order that emancipated the parties’ daughter.

The plaintiff and the defendant met in 1983, and they had one daughter, Nailah, who was born August 28, 1984. The parties were never married. The defendant had three other children from another marriage. On October 19, 1989, the plaintiff filed a complaint in Superior Court seeking the establishment of a support order against defendant and on July 20, 1990, an order was entered to compel an HLA test. This test confirmed that defendant was Nailah’s father. The court entered an initial order of support on April 3, 1991, and the parties have been in and out of court concerning various issues since that time. Thereafter, the plaintiff appealed the October 1, 2004 order that emancipated the parties’ daughter, effective on July 1, 2004.

Nailah was a student at the Livingston Campus of Rutgers University. In her first year at Rutgers, Nailah performed poorly. As a result, the court entered an order on March 26, 2004 that included the following terms:

Nailah Keno must obtain a B or better average in each course, with a minimum of 12 credits hours, for the Spring 2004 semester.  If she does, she will not be emancipated.

If Nailah does not obtain a B average, she will be emancipated and child support will be terminated. If her grades drop below the B requirement at any time after Spring 2004 semester, the child is emancipated and child support is terminated.

In summary, the trial judge ordered that the child must maintain a “B” average. The trial judge opined, “Whatever she finishes this semester with, if it’s a “B” average, defendant pays. If it’s not a “B” average, he’s off the hook, and maybe she has to take a year off and get a job and save money so she can go to school the next year. Maybe she has to go to school at night and work during the day or vice-versa.”

Although Nailah’s academic performance improved, she did not “hit the benchmark” as set by the court in the March 26, 2004 order. She did not achieve a “B” average in the Spring semester. The court reviewed her grades, and observed that “she’s got a cumulative average of 2.4 and 34 credits toward a degree. She needs ……..  120 credits for a Bachelor’s degree.”

The court acknowledged that Nailah had earned a 3.0 average for the Spring semester, but she did so with only three courses, having withdrawn from one course and having failed another.  Under the circumstances, the court concluded, there was no question that Nailah had failed to comply with the March 26, 2004 order. Consequently, the order emancipated her, effective as of July 1, 2004. The emancipation order was entered on July 26, 2004. In summary, the trial court emancipated the child because she failed to maintain a “B” average at Rutgers.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court improperly emancipated Nailah based on her poor college grades. Moreover, the plaintiff argued that the judge failed to apply the correct  case law. The Appellate Division further held that the trial court utilized a solitary criterion to determine whether Nailah had moved beyond the parental sphere, and whether she obtained an independent status. The court held that a child’s early struggles at school does not take a child outside of the parental sphere and make him or her independent. On the contrary, when the child struggles in college he or she may need and rely on his or her parents even more than during times of success. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that the standard applied by the court was arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable. Accordingly, the Appellate Division held that as a matter of law, Nailah was not emancipated because her grades were poor.

Additionally, the Appellate Division opined that the judge failed to consider the full set of applicable standards and guidelines. See, Gac v. Gac, 351 N.J. Super. 54, 64 (App. Div. 2002), rev’d and remanded on other grounds, 186 N.J. 535 (2006). Instead, the trial court created an artificial and arbitrary standard that attached controlling significance to the child’s grades. New Jersey law does not mandate that a student attain a particular GPA in order to receive contribution from his or her parents. See, Keegan v. Keegan, 326 N.J. Super. 289, 295 (App. Div. 1999); (affirming trial court’s decision ordering father to continue contributing to his daughter’s college education without giving any relevance to the daughter’s 2.36 cumulative GPA.)

2. Are there any cases that hold that if a child achieves poor grades then he can be emancipated?

Yes, in the recent case of Hahn v. Rasmussen, A-5937–07T2, the trial court did in fact emancipate a child because she only achieved a GPA of 1.77. In this case, the plaintiff filed an appeal of a post-judgment order that was entered on May 15, 2008. In this order the trial court granted the defendant’s motion to emancipate the child. The trial court found that the child’s performance in college was very problematic. The child failed two courses and she only achieved a GAP of 1.77. The trial court recognized that although the child still lived with the plaintiff, the child had established an independent identity by “buying her own automobile and obligating herself to car payments, insurance and maintenance,” and by working twenty-five hours a week at a local bank.

On appeal, the Appellate Division upheld the trial court, and it agreed that the child was emancipated because she achieved a GPA of only 1.77.

3. What should I do if I am paying my hard earned child support and my son is only getting C’s and D’s at community college?

I would advise you to write your former wife and advise her that you are very concerned that your son is performing miserably in community college. Thereafter, I would also advise you to  file a motion to request that the court emancipate the child based on his poor grades. In nine out of ten cases the judge will not emancipate the child on your first emancipation motion. In your first motion most judges will “lay down the law” and order that the child must improve his grades for the next semester. If your son still is getting C’s and D’s in the next semester, then you should file another emancipation motion. Thereafter, most family court judges will finally emancipate your son.

This may ultimately be a “Phyric” victory. You may be successful in emancipating your son. However, in the long run your son will not be able to “max out” his potential. Moreover, if your son can’t find a job, then he will most likely by “shaking you down” for money in the future. In short, you just can’t win! You could save yourself a few bucks in the short term by emancipating your son. However, in the long run if your son can’t make it in our very competitive world because of a lack of a quality education, then he will be trying to sponge off you. In summary, if you analyze the total picture you actually could be worse off financially if you emancipate your child early before he finishes college. This logic sounds counter-intuitive but it is largely true.

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