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Clayton v. Deter

June 21, 2007


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Ocean County, Docket No. FM-15-56-04S.

Per curiam.


Submitted May 16, 2007

Before Judges C.S. Fisher and Messano.

Defendant Meri Ann Deter, formerly known as Meri Ann Clayton, appeals from that portion of the motion judge's October 20, 2006, order that granted her former husband, defendant Timothy Clayton's, motion to declare the couple's son, Stewart, emancipated. After careful consideration of the record and applicable legal standards, we affirm.

Plaintiff and defendant were married on November 7, 1976, and Stewart was born on May 30, 1987. The parties incorporated the property settlement agreement (PSA) they reached in their June 21, 2004, dual judgment of divorce. Pursuant to the PSA, plaintiff was to pay defendant $400 per week in permanent alimony and $153 per week in child support. With respect to Stewart's future college education, the PSA provided,

This issue is not ripe for determination. In the future, it shall be determined per Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. Super. 529 [1982].*fn1

In the fall of 2005, plaintiff moved to declare Stewart emancipated and to terminate his child support obligations since his son was now eighteen. That motion was denied, the judge finding that Stewart "intended to pursue a college education." However, the judge did order defendant to provide plaintiff with "any and all medical and education records" of their son within thirty days.

One year later, plaintiff renewed his motion and in support he certified that Stewart had attended Widener University during the 2005-06 school year but had accumulated only nine credits in the fall semester and three credits in the spring semester. An enrollment verification from the university's registrar corroborated plaintiff's assertions. In addition, the verification form indicated that Stewart was not enrolled for the fall 2006 semester.

Plaintiff's certification also described the unfortunate lack of any personal relationship between father and son. He asserted that he had not spoken to his son since before the judgment of divorce two years earlier, he was unable to communicate with defendant, and he never received any medical or educational records from defendant as required by the prior order. Because plaintiff could not verify Stewart's enrollment as a full-time student in college, he was unable to maintain coverage for his son through his employer's group medical insurance plan. In sum, plaintiff argued he was "now entitled to a presumption of emancipation and it was now the defendant's obligation to come forward to rebut that presumption."

Defendant filed no opposition to the motion herself; rather, Stewart filed a certification in opposition which, in large part, detailed the complete rupture of the father-son relationship and blamed plaintiff's "lunatic" behavior for the state of affairs. Stewart claimed he was "unable to concentrate properly on [his] studies" at Widener because of plaintiff's conduct and accused plaintiff of "trying to have [him] fail out of school." As of the date of the certification, September 27, 2006, Stewart contended he "[had] transferred to Ocean County Community College where [he was] continuing his studies, and [was] a full-time student enrolled and intend[ing] to matriculate."

Although plaintiff's motion requested oral argument, the judge considered the matter on the papers. Defendant does not assert she objected to that decision. The judge concluded that plaintiff ha[d] presented sufficient evidence . . . to find a prima facie showing that Stewart is now emancipated. Thus, the burden now shifts to the [d]efendant to rebut this prima facie showing . . . . [T]he [d]efendant has failed to meet this burden.

He continued by noting that defendant had not submitted "her own certification," nor presented any "physical evidence that Stewart is not emancipated." The judge found that except for Stewart's bald certification, defendant did not submit "any further evidence such as transcripts or an enrollment letter demonstrating that Stewart is attending [college] on a full time basis." The judge further found that plaintiff "has no way of determining if Stewart is enrolled in college," and that Stewart admitted he had "no contact with his father, and is no longer enrolled full time at Widener University." Lastly, the judge found that defendant had violated his prior order requiring her to provide plaintiff with all of Stewart's educational records and concluded that based upon all of these facts, defendant "failed to rebut the prima facie showing of emancipation demonstrated by [p]laintiff."

The judge ordered that Stewart be deemed emancipated as of the date plaintiff filed his motion, and terminated the support obligations ...

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