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Eibling v. Eibling


May 31, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FM-14-1307-00.

Per curiam.


Argued May 16, 2007

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 decision that consists solely of the following:

I am also going to make the following ruling with respect to Christopher. Under these circumstances emancipation is a fact sensitive determination which is . . . something that [the] [c]court is required to determine based on the totality of all of the circumstances. I cite for that proposition [Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593 (Ch. Div. 1995)] and, of course, [Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982)]. Although emancipation, and this is from [Newburgh] need not occur at any particular age[,] [a] rebuttable presumption against emancipation exists prior to obtaining the age of majority now eighteen.

[At]tainment of the age eighteen establishes prima facie but not conclusive proof of emancipation. Generally parents are not under a duty to support children after the age of majority[,] [citing Newburgh]. And whether a child is emancipated at age eighteen with the correlative termination of the right to parental support depends upon the facts of each case.

I have read earlier in these proceedings extensive excerpts from [the trial judge's 2003 opinion] after a trial on the merits in this matrimonial proceeding and I adopt or reiterate those remarks here.[*fn1 ]

I find under these circumstances that the fair and equitable thing to do is to emancipate Christopher as of today.

Based on this rationale, the judge entered an order on January 31, 2006, which declared Christopher to be emancipated and terminated plaintiff's obligation to pay child support to defendant. The judge also denied a later motion for reconsideration by way of an order entered on April 7, 2006. Defendant appealed from both of these orders and we reverse.

Emancipation turns on whether a child has moved "beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and [has] obtain[ed] an independent status of his or her own." Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301, 308 (App. Div. 1997). In Newburgh v. Arrigo, the Court observed that emancipation "can occur upon the child's marriage, induction into military service, by court order based on the child's best interests, or by attainment of an appropriate age." 88 N.J. at 543 (citations omitted). With regard to the child's age, the Newburgh Court held that a rebuttable presumption against emancipation arises prior to a child's attainment of the age of majority, and that attainment of that age "establishes prima facie, but not conclusive, proof of emancipation." Ibid.

Here, by the time of the filing of the motion, Christopher had exceeded the age of eighteen. However, as Newburgh held, and as the motion judge correctly recognized, that fact does not end the inquiry. Indeed, the record revealed that the parties expected their children to pursue a higher education beyond that age, having established during the course of the marriage college funds for each child. In addition, the record reflects that Christopher has graduated from high school, taken the SATs and, at the time the motion was heard, was pursuing an education at a local community college. These facts, though not necessarily controlling, certainly inure against a finding of emancipation and, at the very least, their presence precluded the granting of plaintiff's motion without further exploration and amplification at an evidentiary hearing.

Rather than order such a hearing, the judge granted the motion based solely upon the papers and the trial judge's 2003 decision. As his oral decision reveals, the motion judge found conclusive the lack of a loving or caring relationship between plaintiff and Christopher based solely upon a similar finding regarding two of Christopher's siblings made by the trial judge two years earlier. We conclude that the judge mistakenly based his ruling on this factor. Although that fact would have relevance if the parties were disputing plaintiff's obligation to contribute to college expenses, Newburgh v. Arrigo, supra, 88 N.J. at 545 (holding that one of the twelve factors to be considered in determining a parent's obligation to contribute to a child's education is "the child's relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance"), it has no relevance in determining whether to terminate a parent's obligation to pay weekly child support to the other parent. In that setting, emancipation must be judged by the standard set forth in Filippone, which we quoted earlier. The absence of a loving relationship between the child and the paying parent has no bearing on the paying parent's obligation to pay weekly child support.

Instead, emancipation in this case turns on whether or to what extent Christopher had moved beyond the sphere of parental influence and developed an independent status of his own. Filippone, supra, 304 N.J. Super. at 308. The judge made no findings in that regard and, after careful review, we conclude that this question cannot be resolved through consideration of the present record. The circumstances are, at best, murky and will require further analysis on remand.*fn2

The orders under review are reversed and the matter remanded for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.

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