When Is a Child Considered an Adult?
Legally, you’re considered an adult when you reach the age of majority, which—in most states—is when you turn 18. The upshot of reaching that status is that you no longer need parental consent to live your life as you wish.
As a practical matter, however, many adult children still depend on their parents for financial support. A parent’s obligation to provide that assistance will depend in large part on whether the law considers the child “emancipated.” Once children become emancipated, parents no longer have a duty to support them.
It’s important to remember that divorce doesn't change parents' legally imposed responsibilities to support their children. But that’s not to say divorce can’t alter the dynamic somewhat.
What Is Emancipation?
In a nutshell, “emancipation” is the point where minors attain independence from their parents. Many people interchange the terms “emancipation” and “reaching the age of majority.” In the world of family law, however, emancipation refers to the process of minor children gaining legal independence from their parents, and it often depends on facts other than reaching a certain age.
Let’s say you live in New Jersey, where the age of majority is 18, but at 17 you get married, obtain a full-time job, and set up a household with your new spouse. You’re a year shy of majority, but New Jersey law would likely consider you emancipated. Joining the military before reaching majority could also result in emancipation.
On the other hand, if you turn 18 in New Jersey and decide you want to pursue higher education, you’d probably still be dependent on your parents for financial assistance. Under those circumstances, a divorce court could order your parents to contribute to your education expenses, and support you while you attend school, even if they are no longer married.
That’s just one scenario in which reaching majority would not automatically render a child emancipated. Another example would be where adult children suffer from a disability which prevents them from becoming self-sufficient. In these cases, divorced parents will have to work out some arrangement for continued financial support of their adult child. If they can't reach an agreement, a judge will decide for them.
Not All State Laws Are the Same
It’s important to note that state laws may differ as to a parent’s responsibility to continue to support a child who has reached the age of majority. As seen above, New Jersey provides for the obligation in certain circumstances. New Hampshire, however, prohibits a court from ordering divorcing parents to pay for college expenses. (But the parents can voluntarily commit to that responsibility in a written divorce settlement agreement, signed by both of them, and approved by the court.)
Because, among the states, there are so many varying elements to emancipation and a parent’s duty to support a child after majority, you need to be aware of your particular state’s laws. This is especially important if your state differentiates between couples who are still married and those who are divorced.
How Divorce Can Alter Post-majority Support Obligations
As indicated above, divorce doesn’t change the fact that both parents are responsible for supporting their children. But the degree of support, particularly for adult children, may depend on certain factors.
The most common scenario in which post-majority support comes into play is where a child wants to attend college. Again using New Jersey as an example, there are several elements that a court will look at in determining the extent of the parental obligation to pay for college. One of these is the parents’ ability to pay. And here is where divorce can really take a toll.
Whereas prior to the divorce, the parents’ collective income was likely used to maintain one household, divorce is probably going to result in that same amount of income being applied to maintaining separate households. Separate living arrangements means additional out-of-pocket costs for each parent. Thus, unless the parents are wealthy enough not to be adversely affected by the increased costs of living apart, they’ll have less money available for other expenditures, such as an adult child’s college costs.
The Common Solution to Post-majority Support Issues in Divorce
While the laws regarding support of adult children can be mind-numbing, and a legal battle on this subject potentially time-consuming and expensive, the reality is that the spouses usually resolve this issue during the divorce process. The vast majority of divorce cases settle before a judge needs to make a decision on the various issues involved.
The final divorce judgment will incorporate all of the spouses' resolutions and terms, which are legally binding, unless and until one spouse goes back to court to ask for a modification (change).
A Word About Inheritances
Generally speaking, the fact that an adult child’s parents are divorced shouldn’t impact that child’s ability to receive an inheritance from them. Assuming compliance with state law, children will inherit whatever their parents have provided for in a Last Will and Testament. If a parent dies without a will, the law regarding this situation (known as “intestacy”) will control what portion of the parent’s estate the child receives.
The laws regarding the financial impact of divorce on an adult child can be quite complex. If you have questions, consider speaking with an experienced family law attorney in your area.