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De Facto Emancipation

Morris v. Powell, 840 S.E.2d 223, 269 N.C.App. 496 (N.C. App. 2020):

North Carolina has very recently decided a case of first impression regarding “de facto emancipation.” Emancipation is typically one of the listed termination events for child support. This is when a child, who has not yet attained the age of majority, petitions the court to be independent and free from parental control. Our statutes allow anyone who is 16 years of age or older to petition the court for a judicial decree of emancipation, if they have been a resident for at least six months in the same county in North Carolina.

As stated, after an emancipation decree, neither parent owes a duty of support to that emancipated child. But in the Morris case, a parent with a duty of support attempted to argue for a form of common law emancipation called de facto emancipation. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.4(c) allows termination of child support when a child reaches the age of 18 or is otherwise emancipated. It is in the “otherwise emancipated” language that the parent couched his argument. At the trial level, the court agreed that the child was de facto emancipated. The Court of Appeals reversed.

The child in this case, who was 17 at the time, moved out of Mother’s home to live with his girlfriend’s family. Mother had primary custody when child moved out, and Father was paying $1000 support per month. When child moved out, neither parent was providing financial support for the child, and he did not move back in with either parent. The trial court found that the child “was living on his own and had essentially emancipated himself without the benefit of a court order.” On appeal, Father argued that “[o]ther states recognize common law doctrines of de facto or self-emancipation, under which the specific facts are weighed to determine if a minor has ‘moved beyond the care, custody, and control of a parent.'” Morris v. Powell, 840 S.E.2d 223, 225 (2020) (citing In re Marriage of Baumgartner, 237 Ill. 2d 468, 480, 341 Ill.Dec. 510, 930 N.E.2d 1024, 1031 (2010)).

Father asked NC to adopt a similar doctrine. Appellate court held: All other common-law provisions for emancipation are superseded by N.C. Gen. Stat. § 7B-3509. We are precluded by Article 35 of the Juvenile Code (7B-3500 et seq.) from accepting common law methods of emancipation for the purposes of Section 50-13.4(c)(1). The trial court agreed that child “had essentially emancipated himself without the benefit of a court order.” However, emancipation, as defined by statute, occurs only as provided by Article 35. On this basis, Father’s child support obligations could not have automatically terminated absent a decree of emancipation.