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What Constitutes Full-Time College Enrollment/Attendance?

By Theodore Sliwinski, Esquire

In the world of family court, a common issue is whether "sonny boy" or your daughter is a full time student. This question often becomes a game of "cat and mouse." If your child is a full time student then you have to pay the "full boat" of support under New Jersey law. This type of support consists of child support and college contribution. Meanwhile, in some cases if a child is only attending college on a part-time basis, then some judges will emancipate a child. It is not uncommon for a child to attend a community college, trade school, technical school or a university for five to eight years, or even longer. In many scenarios, the child who is attending school also lives with the payee spouse. The child support payments help keep the bills paid for the payee spouse. Therefore, the child often feels no pressure or urgency to obtain his or her degree in a timely manner. In many cases, this type of scenario drives the payor spouse absolutely nuts. Nonetheless, this type of dynamic is very common in many split up families today.

The connection between emancipation and what constitutes full time college enrollment/attendance was recently explored in the unpublished Appellate Division case of Alexander v. Alexander, 2011 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 1562. This case raises an interesting question how many credits must a child take to still receive child support and/or college contribution. In many New Jersey families a major is issue is what constitutes full time college enrollment? The standard definition of full time enrollment is typically 12 credits. Almost every college or university in New Jersey defines full time enrollment as taking 12 credits.

The Alexander case addressed a post-judgment emancipation motion. Here, the plaintiff Everald Alexander successfully obtained an order that emancipated his twenty-two-year-old son, and his child support payments were terminated. When the defendant Sandra Alexander received a copy of the April 21, 2010 order, she then filed a motion for reconsideration. She asserted that the parties' son was a full-time student who attended the Bergen Community College. The motion judge granted the defendant's request for reconsideration, and she reinstated child support for the unemancipated full-time college student. Thereafter, the plaintiff then filed an appeal.

More specifically, the parties were divorced on in 2000. The defendant was designated as the residential custodian of the parties' two children. In the fall of 2007, their son started attending the Bergen Community College.

The plaintiff filed a motion for emancipation in August 2009. This motion was denied. However, court ordered that the child would be deemed emancipated if he failed to resume full-time studies by January 2010. In March of 2010, the plaintiff filed his second motion to emancipate his son. The father maintained that the son had not earned sufficient credits to be considered a full-time student. This motion was unopposed and it was granted. Thereafter, the court terminated the plaintiff's child support payments as of March 10, 2010.

Thereafter, the defendant then filed a motion for reconsideration. The father asserted that she did not receive the plaintiff's motion papers because of a change of address. Moreover, the defendant also maintained that the parties' son was attending college on a full-time basis. In her reply to plaintiff's opposition, the defendant provided the child's unofficial transcript that showed he had taken additional summer classes toward obtaining his degree and also successfully completed fifteen credits in the fall 2009 semester and thirteen credits in spring 2010 semester. The defendant also supplied the child's registration for 2010 summer classes and an application to enroll in a four-year degree program at William Patterson University.

The motion judge granted the defendant's motion for reconsideration. The motion judge-determined that the defendant did not receive or respond to the plaintiff's motion for emancipation because he mailed the motion papers to defendant's former address. Furthermore, the motion judge examined the child's updated schedule of completed courses. The motion judge determined that on the date of the prior order, March 10, 2010, he was a full-time student "clearly making efforts to complete his degree" and that emancipation had been improvidently granted. Thereafter, the plaintiff father then appealed.

What is the major holding of the Alexander case?

The Alexander court held that proof of full-time student status requires registration for a full-time class load coupled with efforts designed to satisfy the degree or certification requirements of the educational institution. Implicit in this standard is that a child must act in good faith: the student must attend class and comply with other course requirements in an effort to satisfactorily pass. See, Filippone v. Filippone, 304 N.J. Super. 301 (App. Div. 1997),(holding a child pursuing post-secondary education may no longer be dependent when the "child is unable to perform adequately in his academic program").

In summary, the connection between emancipation and the enrollment/attendance at college is decided on a case by case basis. You can file the same motion before ten different New Jersey family court judges, and you could receive ten different results. However, keep in mind that the payee spouse and the child are considered to be the equivalent of the "Yankees" or "Manchester United" in the family court. They usually win, and every benefit of the doubt usually goes to the payee spouse or to the child. Many judges are often quite sympathetic to a "slacker" child because lets face he or she is often caught up in the middle of the mishegas. I am not Jewish but I love this word. Therefore, many judges will refuse to emancipate a child if he or she is slacking off and not taking a full course load of 12 credits. Many judges will deny a motion to emancipate based on the legal grounds that the child is not taking the full 12 credits. However, many judges will add provisos in the order that compels the slacker child to step it up, and to increase the amount of credits.

Theodore Sliwinski, Esquire, dedicates his practice to providing quality and very affordable legal services to the public. He believes that everyone should be able to afford quality legal services. He has twenty-one years of legal experience and has handled hundreds of divorces, bankruptcies, traffic violations, and criminal and civil cases. He is headquartered in central New Jersey. Affordability, accessibility, responsiveness and personal commitment is what every client receives.

Mr. Sliwinski can be contacted by phone at (732) 257-0708 or
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