January 25, 2010
MARY MASCUILLO, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
EMELIO MASCUILLO, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FM-14-46097-92.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted January 5, 2010
Before Judges Fuentes, Gilroy and Simonelli.
Defendant, Emelio Mascuillo, appeals from the January 29, 2009 order that denied his motion seeking to terminate his child support obligation for the parties' then eighteen-year old son, Michael,*fn1 and directed defendant to pay child support for the child in the amount of $83 per week effective November 6, 2008. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
The parties were married on June 4, 1983, and divorced on June 17, 1992. The parties separated several years prior to their divorce, entering into a property settlement agreement (PSA) on April 6, 1990. At the time the parties signed the PSA, two daughters were born of the marriage. Plaintiff, however, was expecting the birth of Michael in May 1990. Pursuant to the PSA, defendant agreed to pay $200 per week in child support for the two children, with plaintiff retaining the right to seek an increase in child support after the birth of Michael. Nevertheless, on the same day the parties signed the PSA, they signed an addendum to the PSA, wherein plaintiff agreed to accept $200 per week as child support for all three children in consideration of defendant transferring his interest in the marital residence to plaintiff.
In late 2008, defendant unilaterally reduced his child support payment to $100 per week as he considered the two older children emancipated. He continued to pay $100 per week on behalf of Michael. On or about November 6, 2008, defendant filed a motion seeking to terminate his child support obligation, contending that all three children were emancipated. At the time of the motion, Michael was eighteen years of age and suffered from epileptic seizures. Plaintiff did not oppose the motion as it pertained to their older daughter. As to their younger daughter, plaintiff stated that she would not oppose the motion provided defendant agreed to continue to carry her on his health insurance plan. Defendant agreed.*fn2 However, plaintiff filed a cross-motion seeking to compel defendant to continue child support for Michael at the rate of $200 per week.
In his motion, defendant contended that in the PSA the parties had agreed each of the three children would be considered emancipated on reaching the age of eighteen or graduating from high school, whichever event occurs last. Defendant certified that Michael was then eighteen years of age and, although he suffers from epileptic seizures, he had graduated from high school in June 2008; had maintained part-time employment during high school; had never been declared unable to work; had previously applied to the Social Security Administration for Supplement Security Income (SSI) benefits in June 2008, but his request was denied; and at the time of the certification, Michael was working fulltime in a delicatessen in Denville. Lastly, defendant agreed that he would continue to maintain Michael on his health insurance plan.
To the contrary, plaintiff certified that, although Michael had graduated high school in June 2008, he was diagnosed with epileptic seizure disorder in December 2006, and medications have failed to control his seizures. Although no medical documentation was submitted in support of plaintiff's certification, she certified that Michael suffers approximately fifteen to thirty seizures a day, which prohibits him from operating a motor vehicle or climbing stepstools or ladders. According to plaintiff, Michael was terminated from his employment at the delicatessen shortly after defendant filed his motion. Plaintiff acknowledged in her certification that the Social Security Administration had denied their son's request for SSI benefits, but indicated that Michael had appealed that decision. Subsequent to her certification, plaintiff submitted a letter to the court on January 12, 2009, advising that the Social Security Administration had reversed its initial decision and approved SSI benefits for Michael in the amount of $493.65 per month, effective February 1, 2009.
On January 29, 2009, the trial court, without benefit of a hearing, entered an order supported by a statement of reasons terminating defendant's child support obligation for the parties' daughters, but denied defendant's motion to declare Michael emancipated. In so doing, the court determined that the parties had not agreed to their children's emancipation by a date or event certain, but only that they would not be emancipated before the age of eighteen or high school graduation. The court concluded that it would be inequitable to declare Michael emancipated because of his health issues, shifting the financial burden for Michael's shelter and care solely onto plaintiff. Because the parties had not recalculated defendant's child support obligation since the PSA, the court recalculated defendant's child support obligation for Michael, pursuant to the Child Support Guidelines (Guidelines)*fn3 , at $83 per week.
On appeal, defendant argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion to declare Michael emancipated; alternatively, he contends that if we affirm the trial court's ruling on the issue of emancipation for Michael, the court erred in applying the Guidelines in fixing the amount of his child support obligation.
Our review of the trial judge's fact-finding is limited. "The general rule is that findings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). Such deference "is especially appropriate when the evidence is largely testimonial and involves questions of credibility." In re Return of Weapons to J.W.D., 149 N.J. 108, 117 (1997). Moreover, "[b]ecause of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding." Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 413. However, "[a] trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
Defendant first argues that the trial court erred in denying his motion seeking an order declaring Michael emancipated because the parties had previously entered into a PSA, which provided that defendant's child support obligation would terminate once the children reach age eighteen or graduate high school, whichever event occurred last. Not so.
Contrary to defendant's contention, the PSA, Article VI (Support) provides in pertinent part: "The sums of money [child support payments] shall be due and owing until each child becomes emancipated. Emancipation shall not occur until the children reach the age of eighteen or graduate from high school, whichever event occurs later." The PSA does not provide that the children would be deemed emancipated upon the happening of the last stated event, but only that emancipation would not occur before the happening of the last stated event. Accordingly, we conclude that the trial court correctly rejected defendant's argument that the court should have declared Michael emancipated based upon the language contained in the PSA. We are satisfied that the trial court properly determined it necessary to address the issue under existing case law.
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 v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543 (1982). 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). Moreover, "a child who is disabled due to a pre-existing illness, including mental and emotional disorders as well as physical, is [generally] not emancipated until and if he or she is relieved of the disability." Skoloff & Cutler, II New Jersey Family Law Practice, (12th ed. 2006), § 5.6B at p. 5:176 (citing Kruvant v. Kruvant, 100 N.J. Super. 107[, 118] (App. Div. 1968)).
Here, the trial court decided the emancipation issue solely on the parties' certifications. With conflicting certifications having been presented by the parties, we conclude that the court mistakenly decided the issue without the benefit of a plenary hearing to determine the extent of the parties' son's disability and whether he has the capability to obtain and maintain gainful employment to contribute toward his own maintenance. Conforti v. Guliadis, 128 N.J. 318, 322 (1992) (holding that plenary hearings are required when there are "contested issues of material fact on the basis of conflicting affidavits"); see also State v. Pyatt, 316 N.J. Super. 46, 50 (App. Div. 1998) (stating that "[i]n a variety of contexts, courts have opined on the impermissibility of deciding contested issues of fact on the basis of conflicting affidavits or certifications alone"), certif. denied, 158 N.J. 72 (1999).
We acknowledge that at the time of the trial court's decision, the court was in possession of plaintiff's January 12, 2009 letter, in which she advised that the Social Security Administration had reversed its initial decision and approved SSI benefits for Michael in the amount of $493.65 per month, effective February 1, 2009. However, the record does not indicate whether plaintiff had supported her letter with documentary evidence from the Social Security Administration. Although the proof of receipt of SSI benefits is a factor to be considered by the court in determining whether Michael is emancipated, it is not conclusive. Simply because the Social Security Administration has determined that a person is disabled does not necessarily mean that the person is incapable of performing everyday tasks. As the United States Supreme Court has indicated, a person may qualify for disability benefits under the Social Security Act's administrative rules, yet remain capable of performing the essential functions of his or her job. Cleveland v. Policy Mgmt. Sys. Corp., 526 U.S. 795, 803-04, 119 S.Ct. 1597, 1602-03, 143 L.Ed. 2d 966, 975-76 (1999); see also Ramer v. N.J. Transit Bus Operations, Inc., 335 N.J. Super. 304, 315-16 (App. Div. 2000).
Accordingly, we reverse the order denying defendant's application to terminate his child support obligation for Michael, and remand for the purpose of conducting a plenary hearing to determine whether Michael should be declared emancipated, at which time the parties may submit evidentiary proofs of Michael's ability or inability to gain and retain employment.
We also reverse that part of the order directing defendant to pay child support in the amount of $83 per week, effective November 6, 2008. The trial court should not have applied the Guidelines in determining defendant's child support obligation for Michael who had reached majority and had graduated from high school.*fn4
On remand, if the trial court determines that Michael is not emancipated, it should reconsider defendant's child support obligation pursuant to the factors contained in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23a.