On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Salem County, Docket No. FM-17-3440-92.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Parrillo and Lihotz.
Defendant David Goodman appeals from the denial of his post judgment request for emancipation of the parties' two children and termination of his child support obligation. Defendant challenges the motion judge's exercised discretion in ordering him to pay: (1) child support, fixed pursuant to the child support guidelines, for the two children who commute to community college, and (2) plaintiff's counsel fees and costs. Defendant argues that a child who reaches the age of majority and makes his or her own independent decision to refuse a parental relationship should be considered "independent" and barred from receipt of child support. The law does not endorse this premise and, therefore, we affirm.
The parties were divorced on September 21, 1993. They have three children, now ages twenty-two, twenty-one, and twenty. By a consent order dated January 2, 2001, defendant was designated the parent of primary residence for the middle child and plaintiff remained the residential parent for the other two children. When the middle child graduated from high school, defendant moved to California. Defendant was paying plaintiff $64 per week for child support and providing the middle child's post-secondary school educational costs.
On July 26, 2007, defendant moved for the emancipation of all three children and the termination of his obligation to continue child support payments. The motion judge issued a tentative disposition stating his findings and conclusions in accordance with Rule 5:5-4. The parties' accepted the motion judge's conclusions, as expressed in the tentative disposition on several issues, including that their oldest child who graduated from County Community College in June 2007 and commenced full-time employment was emancipated. Counsel directed oral argument solely to the proposed determinations that remained disputed.
Defendant argued the two younger children who remained in plaintiff's household and commuted to County Community College should be emancipated, although he agreed to continue payment of the community college tuition for the middle child. As to the youngest child, defendant argued emancipation was appropriate because the child was legally an adult and had chosen not to have a relationship with him. The latter issue drives this appeal.
Following oral argument, Judge Hoffman denied defendant's emancipation request finding no evidence that supported his claims that the children left plaintiff's sphere of influence and were independent. Using the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, defendant's child support obligation was set at $221 per week. The court also awarded plaintiff counsel fees and costs of $780.
On appeal, defendant argues that once a child reaches age eighteen, a determination of support requires consideration of the statutory factors set forth in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a), and also triggers an analysis of the factors set forth in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543 (1982). In essence, defendant asks us to revisit the law and review the sufficiency of the motion judge's factfinding made to deny emancipation.
"The scope of appellate review of a trial court's fact-finding function is limited." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411 (1998). "Because of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding." Id. at 413. Moreover, the trial court has substantial discretion when determining child support awards. Gotlib v. Gotlib, 399 N.J. Super. 295, 308 (App. Div. 2008). The award is not disturbed "unless it is'manifestly unreasonable, arbitrary, or clearly contrary to reason or to other evidence, or the result of whim or caprice.'" Id. at 309 (quoting Foust v. Glaser, 340 N.J. Super. 312, 315-16 (App. Div. 2001)). "However, no special deference is accorded a trial judge's interpretation of the law." Connell v. Diehl, 397 N.J. Super. 477, 491 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 195 N.J. 518 (2008). If the court ignores applicable standards, the appellate court will reverse and remand. Gotlib, supra, 399 N.J. Super. at 309.
In New Jersey, a parent has a duty to support a child until the child is emancipated. Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535, 542 (2006); Weitzman v. Weitzman, 228 N.J. Super. 346, 356 (App. Div. 1988), certif. denied, 114 N.J. 505 (1989). Reaching the age of majority, which is now eighteen, N.J.S.A. 9:17B-3, prima facie evinces emancipation, however, it is not conclusive because age alone is not dispositive of emancipation. Gac, supra, 186 N.J. at 542; Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543; Dolce v. Dolce, 383 N.J. Super. 11, 17 (App. Div. 2006); L.D. v. K.D., 315 N.J. Super. 71, 75 (Ch. Div. 1998); Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593, 597, 671 (Ch. Div. 1995). Emancipation is "the conclusion of the fundamental dependent relationship between parent and child." Dolce, supra, 383 N.J. Super. at 17; Goldstein v. Goldstein, 4 N.J. Misc. 711, 712 (Sup. Ct. 1926). "[T]he essential inquiry is whether the child has moved'beyond the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by a parent and obtains an independent status of his or her own.'" Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301, 308 (App. Div. 1997) (quoting Bishop, supra, 287 N.J. Super. at 598). "Whether a child is emancipated at age [eighteen], with the correlative termination of the right to parental support," is fact-sensitive. Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543.
In response to defendant's emancipation request, plaintiff's cross-motion sought continued and increased support for the two children in her care; she did not request contribution from defendant for the actual costs of the children's college education. Nevertheless, defendant argues once a child turns eighteen, a weighing of the Newburgh factors controls whether child support must be paid. We disagree.
In Newburgh, supra, Justice Pollock set forth a comprehensive, twelve-factor guideline used to determine whether a non-custodial parent must contribute toward the cost of a child's higher education. 88 N.J. at 545. "'Six years [after Newburgh was decided], the Legislature essentially approved those criteria when amending the support statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a).'" Gac, supra, 186 N.J. at 543 (quoting Kiken v. Kiken, 149 N.J. 441, 449 (1997)). This demonstrates the Legislature's intention to expand child support necessities to include higher education when parents are financially able to contribute. Id. at 542; Kiken, supra, 149 N.J. at 449; Black v. Joseph ...