On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FM-14-1307-00.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Wefing and C.S. Fisher.
In this appeal, we review an order that declared the parties' youngest child, Christopher, to be emancipated, and, as a result, terminated plaintiff's obligation to pay child support to defendant.
The parties were married in 1979. Four children were born of the marriage -- Michael (on August 2, 1982), Elizabeth (on January 2, 1984), Matthew (on September 18, 1985), and Christopher (on July 12, 1987). Following a trial, a dual judgment of divorce was entered on June 27, 2003.
In dissolving the marriage and resolving all other contested issues, the trial judge explained why she did not require that plaintiff pay weekly child support to defendant for the two oldest children, Michael and Elizabeth:
First, they are both emancipated; Michael is almost 21, Elizabeth is 19. Second, neither of them is a full-time college student.
Third, they are both capable of working to meet their needs. Fourth, it was quite clear to the court that they have no respect or affection for [plaintiff] and they do not want to have a relationship with him. They have threatened to sue him. Michael suggested he might want to have a relationship with [plaintiff] after the divorce is over, but the court did not find this testimony credible. The court believed that Michael only said this because he wanted the court to continue to impose a financial burden on [plaintiff] for his support and so the [c]court would order [plaintiff] to contribute to his education.
[T]his court will not allow Michael and Elizabeth to use [plaintiff] as a "wallet" where they clearly do not have any love or respect for him.
In late 2005, plaintiff moved for an order that would declare Christopher emancipated and relieve him of any further obligation to pay child support to defendant. This motion was heard by a judge other than the trial judge, who had retired in the interim. In his oral decision, the motion judge greatly relied upon the trial judge's 2003 findings. He also recognized that Christopher had turned eighteen years of age a few months prior to the filing of plaintiff's motion, but correctly observed that the matter did not turn merely on the child's age. Instead, the judge correctly held that whether a child should be deemed emancipated constitutes "a fact sensitive determination" that turns on the totality of the circumstances.
The motion judge also relied upon the following finding in the trial judge's 2003 written opinion that defendant had insulated the children from plaintiff:
[Plaintiff] has no relationship with his four children. This is partially because [defendant] interfered with his relationship with the children. She controlled the children and the five of them form a little clique excluding everyone else from their inner circle. [Defendant] was able to accomplish this through her home schooling of all of the children so that they became totally dependent on her.
Following his reading of these findings from the trial judge's 2003 decision, as well as others, and after hearing additional argument from the parties, the judge rendered an oral ...