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Brandes v. Rigney

February 27, 2009

STEVEN BRANDES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
v.
HELENE L. RIGNEY, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FM-12-2495-97.

Per curiam.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted January 21, 2009

Before Judges Winkelstein and Gilroy.

Defendant Helene L. Rigney appeals from that part of the September 20, 2007 order of the Family Part, as amended by a second order of the same day and by an order of September 26, 2007, that declared the parties' younger son emancipated. She also appeals from the orders of November 2, 2007, and December 21, 2007, denying her motions for reconsideration. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

Following fifteen years of marriage, the parties were divorced on July 29, 1997. Three children were born of the marriage: Raymond, born December 1982; Eric, born July 1985; and Jessica, born June 1990. The judgment of divorce incorporated the parties' July 9, 1997 property settlement agreement (PSA), and addressed issues of child custody and child support, including the parties' obligations to contribute toward the children's college expenses in proportion to the parties' financial abilities.

Initially, the parties shared legal custody of the three children, with plaintiff designated as the custodial parent. In March 1998, an order was entered transferring physical custody of Raymond to defendant. In May 1998, a child support order was entered as to both parties. In September 2000, plaintiff consented to a transfer of physical custody of Eric and Jessica to defendant. On July 23, 2004, the court entered an order denying plaintiff's motion seeking to have Raymond and Eric declared emancipated.*fn1

In September 2007, plaintiff moved a second time to have the parties' sons emancipated. At the time of oral argument on September 20, 2007, Raymond was age twenty-four, had recently graduated from law school, and had begun a judicial clerkship. Based on those findings, the court declared Raymond emancipated. Defendant does not challenge that determination.

Plaintiff sought to have Eric emancipated, alleging that he could no longer afford to pay Eric's college expenses, his son having already attended four years of college. Defendant objected, contending that part of Eric's difficulty in completing college was because of health issues. After referencing the factors in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 545 (1982), the trial court declared Eric emancipated as of the day of oral argument. As to Eric's college expenses, the court directed that Eric should obtain personal loans for college, and if he successfully completes his college education in the next three years, he could then move for reimbursement of his educational expenses from his parents. The court entered a confirming order on September 20, 2007. On that same day and on September 26, 2007, the court entered two amended orders increasing plaintiff's child support obligation for the parties' daughter.

At oral argument, defendant accepted the court's reasoning that it would be better to compel Eric to pay for his own college expenses in hope that he will pursue his college education more diligently than he has in the past. However, defendant twice moved for reconsideration of the court's order declaring Eric emancipated. Although the motions also sought other miscellaneous relief, the parts of both motions seeking reconsideration of the court's determination of Eric's emancipation were denied.

On appeal, defendant argues: 1) the record does not support the court's finding that Eric was emancipated, not having left the sphere of parental influence; 2) the court erred in determining Eric emancipated based solely on his lack of commitment to his educational endeavors; 3) the court did not consider Eric's medical condition in determining him emancipated; 4) the court improperly cited the Newburgh factors as a basis for emancipation; 5) the court improperly reversed the prior order denying emancipation without proof of a change of circumstances; and 6) the court did not conduct a plenary hearing.

II.

Appellate review of a trial court's fact-finding function is limited. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). The general rule is that a trial court's findings are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, and credible evidence. Ibid. Such deference is especially owed to family court fact-findings "[b]ecause of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters." Id. at 413. An appellate court, however, does not owe any special ...


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