November 21, 2008
ANN PEDRICK, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
DAVID GOODMAN, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
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NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: October 22, 2008
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 Walker & Joan Walker, 295 N.J. Super. 244, 256 (App. Div. 1996). It did not signal an objective to constrict parental support obligations once children attend college.
The law is well established that both parents have an obligation to provide for the support of their dependent children. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. Moreover, the receipt of child support is the right of the child, not the custodial parent. Pascale v. Pascale, 140 N.J. 583, 591 (1995); Gotlib, supra, 399 N.J. Super. at 305; Patetta v. Patetta, 358 N.J. Super. 90, 94 (App. Div. 2003); Blum v. Ader, 279 N.J. Super. 1, 4 (App. Div. 1994); Martinetti, supra, 261 N.J. Super. at 512. The court, in exercising the State's parens patriae role, must assure support for all unemancipated children despite their parents' divorce.
Defendant's reliance on the holdings of Gac, supra, 186 N.J. 535 (2006) and Moss v. Nedas, 289 N.J. Super. 352 (App. Div. 1996), is misplaced. Those cases addressed circumstances when it may be inequitable to require a non-custodial parent to contribute to college costs. Such determinations properly turn on a weighing of the specific facts of each case as enunciated in Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 545. In all cases such as this one, the non-custodial parent's obligation to pay support for a college student remains unaffected by any determination of whether he or she also has an obligation to contribute to college costs.
Unfortunately, parent-child estrangement has become an all too common byproduct of families destroyed by divorce. Straver v. Straver, 26 N.J. Misc. 218, 223 (Ch. 1948). Defendant is not the first father to ask to be relieved of his child support obligation because he believes his son or daughter has become a stranger. We resist the temptation to blame him, the custodial parent, or the child for this regrettable result. See e.g., Ionno v. Ionno, 148 N.J. Super. 259, 261 (App. Div. 1977) (wife's adultery does not impact her obligation to provide child support). Instead, we steadfastly adhere to a public policy that advances the protection and support of children who strive to secure a college degree, regardless of a broken relationship with their parents. That policy allows a child who has reached adulthood, as chronologically defined by law, to also obtain the education and maturity to reach financial self-sufficiency.
We decline defendant's invitation to extend Newburgh's application to matters determining a non-custodial parent's obligation to provide his or her child's basic needs while the child is a full-time college student and still dependent on parental financial assistance. Thus, despite the child reaching age eighteen, the proposition remains: a non-custodial parent's obligation to provide for his or her child's support is not dependent upon the quality of the parent-child relationship. Martinetti, supra, 261 N.J. Super. at 513; see also Fiore v. Fiore, 49 N.J. Super. 219, 227 (App. Div.) (child support payments not dependent on parenting time), certif. denied, 28 N.J. 59 (1958). In this matter, we determine Judge Hoffman properly evaluated the children's needs and best interests when concluding they were not emancipated and when fixing defendant's continuing responsibility for their support. Patetta, supra, 358 N.J. Super. at 95.
Further, we determine no misapplication of discretion was exercised by the court in applying the child support guidelines to the facts at hand. R. 5:6A. The economic underpinnings of the child support guidelines are designed to give the court clear economic information in determining "fair and adequate child support awards." Child Support Guidelines, Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A: at 2315 (2008). "The economic data and procedures of these guidelines attempt to simulate the percentage of parental net income that is spent on children in intact families." Ibid. "The child support guidelines may be applied in the court's discretion to support for students over 18 years of age who commute to college." Id. at. 2333.
Here, the change in location of the children's school would insignificantly alter the guidelines' support calculation. As argued by plaintiff, shelter, utility, food, clothing, health care, and entertainment expenses were unaffected by the change from high school to college and transportation and automobile expenses were increased. We conclude no basis is presented to interfere with the motion judge's determination.
Finally, defendant objects to the award of counsel fees to plaintiff. The court has discretion to make awards of attorney fees to successful parties in support actions. R. 5:3-5(c); Williams v. Williams, 59 N.J. 229, 233 (1971). Rule 4:42-9(a)(1) authorizes the award of counsel fees in a family action on a final determination and Rule 5:3-5(c) sets forth the criteria considered when determining such an award. These include:
(1) the financial circumstances of the parties; (2) the ability of the parties to pay their own fees or to contribute to the fees of the other party; (3) the reasonableness and good faith of the positions advanced by the parties; (4) the extent of the fees incurred by both parties; (5) any fees previously awarded; (6) the amount of fees previously paid to counsel by each party; (7) the results obtained; (8) the degree to which fees were incurred to enforce existing orders or to compel discovery; and (9) any other factor bearing on the fairness of an award.
The trial court's discretion is not unfettered, as the standards set forth in the statutes and cases must be addressed. Salch v. Salch, 240 N.J. Super. 441, 443 (App. Div. 1990).
There is no evidence that plaintiff's position here was unreasonable or lacked good faith. Indeed, she prevailed on the key issue involving the children's emancipation. There is a disparity between the parties' incomes such that defendant earns twice the amount imputed to plaintiff. Finally, the awarded amount was not unreasonable. We find no abuse of discretion and therefore, discern no legal basis to interfere with the trial court's ruling.
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