December 27, 2010
KRISTIN O'CONNELL, PLAINTIFF-RESPONDENT,
ANDREW NATALONI, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, Docket No. FM-02-5328-86.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted December 15, 2010
Before Judges Fisher and Fasciale.
In this third appeal*fn1 from post-judgment orders entered in this matrimonial action, defendant Andrew Nataloni contends that the trial judge erred in holding that the parties' only child had not become emancipated after her graduation from college either as a matter of law or pursuant to the terms of their property settlement agreement (PSA). We conclude that the trial judge properly interpreted the PSA's unique emancipation provision and affirm.
The parties were married in 1983; their only child, Heidi, was born in 1984. The parties separated soon after Heidi's birth. They entered into a PSA and were divorced by way of a judgment entered on September 14, 1988. The parties thereafter disputed various issues mostly related to child support and counsel fees, which, as we have noted, resulted in prior appeals to this court. The disposition of those appeals has no bearing here.
Heidi attended and graduated from Fordham University on May 20, 2006 with a degree in theatre arts. She thereafter secured employment as a lighting director with a theatre and, on March 6, 2008, she was accepted into the Master's Program at the Central School of Speech and Drama within the University of London.
In May 2008, two years after Heidi graduated from Fordham University, defendant moved for an order declaring that Heidi was emancipated and other related relief; plaintiff Kristen O'Connell cross-moved for an order awarding child support arrears and other relief. The judge determined that a plenary hearing was required to determine whether Heidi should be deemed emancipated. After the hearing, the judge issued a written opinion, holding that Heidi was not emancipated and imposing on defendant an obligation to pay sixty-eight percent of the costs to be incurred by Heidi in pursuing a master's degree.
Defendant appealed, raising the following arguments for our consideration:
I. HEIDI IS EMANCIPATED AS A MATTER OF LAW.
II. HEIDI IS EMANCIPATED UNDER THE TERMS OF THE PSA.
III. DEFENDANT SHOULD BE RELIEVED OF HIS OBLIGATION TO CONTRIBUTE TO HEIDI'S POSTGRADUATE MASTERS PROGRAM AT THE UNIVERSITY OF LONDON.
IV. FAIRNESS, JUDICIAL ECONOMY AND THE AVOIDANCE OF UNNECESSARY LITIGATION REQUIRE THAT THE COURT EXERCISE ORIGINAL JURISDICTION AND DECLARE HEIDI EMANCIPATED AS OF OCTOBER 2009.
We find insufficient merit in Points III and IV to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We reject Points I and II for the following reasons.
Emancipation turns on 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 v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593, 598 (Ch. Div. 1995)). This fact-sensitive determination requires "a critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child's need, 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).
Here, as in many cases, "the family's reasonable expectations" are revealed by the PSA. The parties stipulated in the PSA that Heidi would only be emancipated upon the earlier of the following events:
(i) Marriage of the Child after the age of 24 years . . .;
(ii) Death of the Child;
(iii) After the 18th birthday of the Child, upon the Child's interrupting her technical, academic or professional course of study, in excess of a continuum of two (2) years for reasons other than disability or illness either physical or psychiatric[;]
(iv) Upon the 30th birthday of the Child, except in the event of illness or disability.
At the time of the judge's decision, Heidi was twenty-five years old and unmarried. Accordingly, whether she was emancipated was governed by the third provision quoted above and, more specifically, whether there had been an interruption of her studies "in excess of a continuum" of two years.
In considering that question, the judge found from the evidence adduced at the plenary hearing, that: Heidi had graduated from Fordham on May 20, 2006; was accepted to a graduate program at the University of London on March 6, 2008; and accepted the position at the University of London and forwarded a £1000 check in order to matriculate in the Fall of 2008. In interpreting the emancipation provision, the judge found that Heidi's acceptance to the graduate program within two years of her Fordham graduation constituted a break in the two-year continuum referred to in the PSA.*fn2
Our standard of review requires that we defer to the facts found by a Family Part judge "when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). We also provide additional deference to the decisions of Family Part judges due to their "special expertise in the field of domestic relations." Ibid.; see also N.J. Div. of Youth & Family Servs. v. M.C., 201 N.J. 328, 343 (2010). After examining the parties' particular stipulation regarding emancipation and his own well-supported fact findings, the judge determined that defendant failed to demonstrate a two-year interruption in Heidi's course of study because Heidi was accepted to a graduate program within two years of her receipt of an undergraduate degree. The judge recognized it was irrelevant that Heidi would not attend the graduate program until a few months more than two years from her receipt of an undergraduate degree; the fact is that, once accepted at the University of London, Heidi began her studies in that program as soon as permitted.
The PSA provision in question does not precisely define the circumstances that would or would not generate a break in the continuum and provides no explicit guidance as to its operations in circumstances such as those presented here. The judge's interpretation of the PSA is far more plausible than the interpretation urged by defendant and warrants our deference.