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Moss v. Nedas

February 20, 1996


On appeal from Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County.

Approved for Publication April 16, 1996.

Before Judges P.g. Levy and Eichen.


This is an appeal from a post-judgment order entered in the Family Part on January 20, 1995, following plaintiff's motion to enforce litigant's rights. The order terminated plaintiff's obligation to further contribute to the costs of his daughter Leigh's college tuition. We affirm.

The parties were divorced on June 9, 1980. A property settlement agreement providing for the parties to share college education costs "in proportion to their ability to contribute" was incorporated into the judgment. Leigh, now age twenty-one and visually impaired, was five years old at the time of the divorce.

We review the more recent events leading to this appeal. On May 16, 1994, following a plenary hearing, the Family Part Judge, who entered the instant order, issued a lengthy detailed written opinion concluding that plaintiff was obligated to pay $12,000 toward the $27,000 annual cost of Leigh's education at Sarah Lawrence College. The Judge noted that "in comparison, Rutgers University costs about $9,000 per year." Plaintiff had not objected to paying his fair share of Leigh's college education but questioned the necessity for her attendance at Sarah Lawrence College because of the expense.

At the time of the hearing, Leigh had already completed one semester at Sarah Lawrence College and the court was reluctant to require her to change schools in view of her disability and apparent success there. Notably, the court heard testimony from Leigh herself. The Judge observed "the benefits of Sarah Lawrence to Leigh are its small size; location ...; faculty/student ratio; small class size and individualized course of study; and housing alternatives." She found that Leigh is "committed to her college education, ... has shown remarkable independence in her educational goals, ... [and] has been successful in her courses at Sarah Lawrence."

The court reviewed both plaintiff's and defendant's financial circumstances, as well as Leigh's financial social security disability payments, the fact that she has the "ability to work during the summer," and that "financial aid is available, through grants, scholarships or loans." Observing that plaintiff's and defendant's gross incomes were essentially the same in 1993, $59,000 for plaintiff and $57,000 for defendant, at least prior to her taking a voluntary leave from her job and moving to Florida with her husband, the Family Part Judge directed plaintiff to pay $12,000 toward the $27,000 tuition and other related costs at Sarah Lawrence. Accordingly, on June 20, 1994, the Judge entered an order requiring plaintiff to pay "$6,000 ... twice a year directly to Sarah Lawrence College, on a timely semester basis."

In the written decision, the Judge also noted that "Leigh's relationship to her father appears one of affection, care, shared goals as to her education, and responsiveness to one another, although it is not a close and intense relationship. Leigh had lived with her father for about six years after the divorce."

Thus, in determining the amount of the contribution, the Family Part Judge considered the factors enumerated in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 443 A.2d 1031 (1982), noting "the financial [factors were] determinative," but also acknowledging the relational factor under Newburgh. In this context, the Judge also observed:

[Plaintiff] had made it clear ... that it was too expensive and that he could not afford that type of educational expense. He was not consulted any further even when Leigh was actually accepted. (emphasis added)

In the fall, plaintiff was surprised to learn that Leigh had applied to and received approval of a transfer of her credits to Skidmore College. He also learned that the application had actually been filed prior to the May 12, 1994 hearing and that Leigh had been accepted to Skidmore prior to the court's June 20, 1994 order. Thus, neither the court nor plaintiff had been told of these changed circumstances despite their existence at the time of the hearing. When plaintiff did not pay the tuition to Skidmore, defendant filed a motion to enforce litigant's rights. Plaintiff responded by cross-motion seeking a new plenary hearing to redetermine the apportionment of the college education costs between the parties.

On September 6, 1994, the Family Part Judge denied plaintiff's motion to enforce litigant's rights and granted plaintiff a modification in the amount of college expenses he would be obligated to pay for the school year 1994-95 at Skidmore. The Judge issued a written letter decision explaining her reasons for the modification. We reproduce the decision here essentially in its entirety. This time the Judge emphasized the relational factors in determining to reduce plaintiff's proportional share of college expenses.

These motions are necessitated by the undisputed facts that months prior to the plenary hearing which focused upon [plaintiff's] obligation to contribute to the expenses of Sarah Lawrence College, Leigh had filed applications to other colleges for transfer; that as of the date of the plenary hearing, she was still considering a transfer out of Sarah Lawrence; that she was accepted as a transfer student to Skidmore College; that she actually accepted the transfer prior to the entry of the June 20, 1994 order; that neither Leigh nor [defendant] ever advised [plaintiff] ...

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