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Philipp v. Stahl

October 03, 2001

CLAIRE PHILIPP, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT
v.
ROBERT STAHL, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FD-12-1881-94.

Before Judges Wecker, Lesemann and Landau.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Lesemann, J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted May 22, 2001

The parties in this Family Part case were married in 1975, divorced in Georgia on April 23, 1993, and seem to have spent much of their time since the divorce battling each other, first in the courts of Georgia and thereafter in the courts of New Jersey. The present appeal stems from an application of the plaintiff wife to require her ex-husband to contribute to their daughter's college expenses at Princeton and for additional miscellaneous relief. The trial court held that the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.65 to -30.123, placed "exclusive jurisdiction" in the courts of the state that had issued the original support order (Georgia), and thus this state had no jurisdiction to act. We are satisfied, however, that since a court in this state issued a number of post-divorce orders which touched on support of the parties' children,*fn1 and both the plaintiff wife and the daughter whose educational costs are at issue live in this state, the New Jersey Family Part does have jurisdiction to hear and resolve the matter. Accordingly, we reverse.

I.

UIFSA was adopted by all fifty states at the instigation of Congress which sought to eliminate the problem of conflicting support orders by different states, each of whom claimed jurisdiction in a support dispute. Thus, the provisions of the Georgia statute are virtually identical to those of the New Jersey Act. See GA. Code Ann. § 19-11-110 to -118.*fn2

The basic concept of UIFSA is relatively simple, although its format may contribute to some lack of clarity by employing what would seem to be self-defining terms, such as "continuing exclusive jurisdiction," to mean something other than what their normal usage would suggest. Indeed, it is the seemingly anomalous concept of two states having such "continuing exclusive jurisdiction" over the same matter which lies at the root of the jurisdictional dispute in this case.

The jurisdictional provisions of UIFSA which govern this case are set out in four subsections of N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.72. Subsection a provides that, unless all parties agree otherwise, if a court of this state has issued "a support order," then that court has "continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over a child support order" so long as either the obligor or obligee under the order, or "the child for whose benefit the support order is issued" continues to reside in this state.*fn3 Subsection b, however, provides that a court of this state which has issued a child support order "may not exercise its continuing jurisdiction to modify the order if the order has been modified by a tribunal of another state pursuant to this act or a law substantially similar to this act."

Subsection c seems to be essentially a restatement of subsection b. It says that if a "child support order" issued by this state is "modified by a tribunal of another state pursuant to this act or a law substantially similar to this act," the New Jersey court "loses its continuing, exclusive jurisdiction with regard to prospective enforcement of the order issued in this State. . . ." Finally, subsection d directs that a court of this state "shall recognize the continuing, exclusive jurisdiction of a tribunal of another state which has [already] issued a child support order pursuant to this act. . . ."*fn4

The anomaly in the statute, and the seeming self-contradiction in its terminology, stems from its direction that so long as a support order issued by one state is in effect, a second state shall not also issue a support order in that same case. However, the statute then contains a description of what is to happen if such a second state does issue a support order: the order of the second state replaces that of the first, and it is the second state—-not the first—-which retains "exclusive jurisdiction."

If the New Jersey court has issued one or more orders that "modified" the original Georgia "support order" (embodied in its judgment of divorce), then Georgia lost the "continuing, exclusive jurisdiction" which it once had regarding support matters, and that "continuing, exclusive jurisdiction" is now vested in New Jersey. Plaintiff claims there have been at least three such New Jersey orders and that jurisdiction to decide the support issue she now raises rests here. We agree.

The facts of the case, as they relate to the jurisdictional issue on appeal, are not in dispute. The Georgia divorce decree was issued on April 23, 1993. It incorporated a binding arbitration agreement dealing with custody, support and related matters, and also embodied the parties' agreement regarding visitation. At the time, the parties' two children were aged twelve (Julia) and eight (Eric). The wife was designated as principal custodial care giver and the husband was to pay child support of $500 per month, per child. He was also to pay for both children's tuition at private school (with limitations tied to the costs of certain designated schools in Georgia), and the judgment further provided that "in addition to tuition," the father would be "responsible for other reasonable costs of the school, for normal fees, and activities of the other students such as athletic events charged by the school and educational trips. . . ." In addition, defendant was to insure the children under his medical plan, with the parties dividing equally the cost of medical services beyond those covered by the plan. The wife was to maintain the children under her dental plan, with uncovered costs to be similarly divided between the parties. And finally, the judgment provided that, "If either or both of the children attend summer camp, the cost shall be equally divided between the parents." Neither the judgment nor the arbitration agreement whose provisions were incorporated into the judgment contained any specific reference to college expenses.

Less than six months after entry of the divorce judgment, the plaintiff wife decided to move, with the children, to New Jersey. As required by the judgment, she notified the defendant of that intention,*fn5 and defendant moved to enjoin the relocation and also to obtain custody of the children. That motion was denied by the Georgia Superior Court on September 14, 1993. Plaintiff notes, correctly, that the decision rendered on ...


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