February 27, 2009
STEVEN BRANDES, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
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.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION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.
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.
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 deference to a trial court's legal conclusions. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
Generally, "emancipation is the act by which a parent relinquishes the right to custody and is relieved of the duty to support a child." Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543. In New Jersey, there is no fixed age when emancipation occurs. Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535, 542 (2006). While a rebuttable presumption against emancipation occurs prior to reaching the age of majority, N.J.S.A. 9:17B-3, attainment of age eighteen establishes prima facie, but not conclusive, proof of emancipation. Ibid. For example, emancipation may occur upon a child's marriage, upon induction into military service, by court order based on a child's best interest, or by attainment of an appropriate age. Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543. The issue is fact sensitive. Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301, 308 (App. Div. 1997).
"[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.'" Ibid. (quoting Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593, 598 (Ch. Div. 1995)). This determination requires "a critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child's need[s], interests, and independent resources, the family's reasonable expectations, and the parties' financial ability, among other things." Dolce v. Dolce, 383 N.J. Super. 11, 18 (App. Div. 2006). It is against these principles that we consider defendant's arguments.
The trial court decided plaintiff's emancipation motion on the arguments of the parties and their certifications filed with the court. Plaintiff certified in his August 7, 2007 certification that Eric turned eighteen on July 2, 2003; that during the prior four years, Eric had attended three colleges "on and off" without acquiring a two-year degree; Eric no longer resides with defendant, having moved out of defendant's home to reside with other individuals in New Brunswick; and Eric was employed as a security guard more than twenty hours a week, earning money "to pay for his car, games and other personal interests."
In her opposing certification defendant countered that, although Eric presently resides in New Brunswick, it "is primarily for the ease of the commute to DeVry [Technical Institute] in North Brunswick, and is not a permanent move." Defendant asserted that Eric's living in New Brunswick with other roommates is not an immediate emancipation event because "Eric plans to attend DeVry Technical Institute in September and will be living [in New Brunswick] during the school [t]erm. DeVry does not offer on[-]campus housing, and seeing that [I live] in Warren County, the commute time is extraordinary."
As to Eric's support, defendant certified that she presently pays for his car insurance and phone bill; and provides him money for food, clothing, and all other means of support. She denied that Eric has been going to college for four years "on and off," but rather has continuously attended college during the four years without any gaps. Although defendant concedes that Eric transferred colleges during that time period, she stated that the primary reason he left the first college was because of the long commute to Newark where he was attending college after she moved to Phillipsburg. In addition, Eric suffered cardiac problems during the fall of 2005 and spring 2006, causing him to miss classes. Concerning Eric's present intentions, defendant informed the court that he desires to continue his education and attend DeVry. Lastly, as to Eric's employment as a security guard, defendant stated that "[t]his is certainly not a full[-]time job and is merely a part[-]time [j]ob for extra spending money while he is preparing to attend [s]chool [f]ull [t]ime in the fall."
We agree with defendant that the trial court did not apply the proper legal standard in deciding the issue of Eric's emancipation. The Newburgh factors that the court referenced concern a parent's obligation to pay for a child's college expenses. Here, the PSA addressed that issue. Thus, the issue before the court was whether Eric was emancipated. If found emancipated, then plaintiff's obligation to pay child support for Eric and to contribute toward his college expenses would terminate. If not emancipated, then plaintiff's obligation to contribute toward his support, including college expenses, as agreed upon in the PSA, would continue.
Here, the trial court did not determine whether Eric has reached such an independent status in his life as to be deemed emancipated. Bishop, supra, 287 N.J. Super. at 598. Because we are satisfied the trial judge did not properly decide the issue of emancipation under the correct legal principles, we reverse those parts of the three orders of September 20, 2007 and September 26, 2007, that determined Eric emancipated. We remand the matter to the trial court to reconsider that issue and, if necessary, to conduct a plenary hearing on the matter to resolve the issue of the conflicting certifications of the parties.
Defendant requests on remand that we direct that the matter be considered by a different judge. We decline the invitation. The assignment of the matter to a different trial judge for a "fresh look" is not warranted because the trial judge did not make findings concerning either party's credibility. Brown v. Brown, 348 N.J. Super. 466, 493 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 174 N.J. 193 (2002); J.L. v. J.F., 317 N.J. Super. 418, 438 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 158 N.J. 685 (1999).
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.