On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.
The opinion of the Court is delivered by Pollock, J. Chief Justice Poritz and Justices Handler, O'hern, Garibaldi and Coleman join in Justice POLLOCK's opinion. Justice Stein did not participate.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pollock
(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).
Donald Kiken v. Ellen Kiken (A-97-96)
Argued January 22, 1997 -- Decided June 12, 1997
POLLOCK, J., writing for a unanimous Court.
The issue in this appeal is whether the estate of Donald Kiken is liable for the costs of the college education of his son as provided in the judgment of divorce between Donald and Ellen Kiken.
Donald and Ellen Kiken, who were married in 1976, separated at some point after the birth of their son, David, in 1977. They negotiated a property-settlement agreement, which was subsequently incorporated in a judgment of divorce entered on December 22, 1982. One of the paragraphs of the judgment provided that Donald and Ellen "will pay for college for the infant child commensurate at the time with their income and assets." Although other paragraphs had addressed the effect of either Ellen's or Donald's death, that paragraph dealing with the obligation to pay for David's college expenses did not.
Donald died on August 11, 1986, at the age of 44. David was then nine years old. The estimated value of Donald's estate, which consisted largely of real estate, was between ten and sixteen million dollars. As of October 1990, approximately two million dollars remained in the estate, the executor having made partial distributions to Donald's mother, sister and second wife, pursuant to his will.
In December 1994, the University of Pennsylvania granted David early admission. On March 17, 1995, Ellen filed a notice of motion to enforce litigant's rights, seeking to substitute the executor of Donald's estate as the plaintiff in this matrimonial proceeding and an order compelling Donald's estate to pay David's college expenses. That request was based on that paragraph of the judgment of divorce, which indicated that the parties would pay for David's college expenses commensurate at the time with their income and assets. Ellen, who is a substitute teacher, asserted that, because of the disparity between her income and the value of Donald's estate, the estate should pay the full costs of David's college education. The executor opposed the motion, arguing that the obligation to pay for David's college expenses terminated on Donald's death.
In May 1995, the Chancery Division denied the motion, finding that the agreement incorporated in the judgment of divorce did not bind Donald's estate. The Appellate Division subsequently affirmed, reasoning that the absence of any language explicitly binding the respective estates for college expenses permitted the reasonable assumption that the parties had intended that obligation to terminate upon the death of either parent.
The Supreme Court granted Ellen's petition for certification.
HELD: Under N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23, Donald Kiken's estate is bound by his obligation to contribute to the cost of his son's college education.
1. The parental duty of support, originally only a moral obligation, has become an obligation enforceable at law and one that may bind a parent's estate. (pp. 6-8)
2. In recent years, both the Legislature and the Judiciary have recognized that, in appropriate cases, the duty of parental support may include liability for the costs of the higher education of children. (pp. 8-9)
3. The Court has construed N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 liberally to allow a court to enter a support order for minor children to survive their father's death where the circumstances equitably call for such action, and the statutory scheme suggests that the Legislature contemplates that a parent's support obligation is binding on his or her estate. (pp. 9-13)
4. Courts in other jurisdictions also have imposed on a deceased parent's estate the continuing obligation to support a child. (pp. 13-14)
5. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 authorizes courts to enter reasonable and equitable support orders, including orders for the education of children. (p. 14)
6. The absence of a provision that the deceased parent's obligation terminates on death creates the inference that the obligated parent intended to bind his or her estate. (pp. 14-16)
7. Under the circumstances of this case, the substitution of the executor is permissible. (pp. 16-18)
Judgment of the Appellate Division is REVERSED and the matter is REMANDED to the Family Part to substitute the executor of the estate as the plaintiff in the matrimonial action and to conduct further proceedings to determine the extent to which the estate should contribute to the cost of David's college expenses.
CHIEF JUSTICE PORITZ and JUSTICES HANDLER, O'HERN, GARIBALDI and COLEMAN join in JUSTICE POLLOCK's opinion. ...