December 9, 2011
LAURA MOFFITT, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
GUY J. MOFFITT, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, FM-02-1882-02.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted October 18, 2011 -
Before Judges Reisner and Simonelli.
These two appeals, which we have consolidated for purposes of this opinion, arise from post-judgment matrimonial motions filed by plaintiff Laura Moffitt against defendant Guy Moffitt. Plaintiff appeals from a June 7, 2010 order concerning child support and a July 23, 2010 order denying her motion for reconsideration of the June 7 order. She also appeals from an October 29, 2010 order declaring the parties' daughter emancipated and a December 22, 2010 order denying her reconsideration motion. We affirm all of the orders on appeal.
We first address the motion concerning child support. Briefly, the parties were married in 1987 and divorced in 2003. They have a son born in 1991 and a daughter born in 1988. In the divorce judgment, defendant was required to pay $85,000 per year in alimony and $31,200 per year in child support. In January 2005, he filed a motion to reduce his support obligations. On December 15, 2005, the Family Part judge reduced defendant's alimony obligation to $25,000 per year and his child support obligation to $311 per week, due to a significant reduction in his income. Plaintiff appealed.
On that appeal, we remanded the matter to the Family Part to correct the support calculation for a one-week period between January 14, 2005 and January 21, 2005, the date on which we determined that defendant had filed his motion to reduce his support obligations. Moffitt v. Moffitt, Nos. A-0573-05; A-2949-05; A-3178-06 (App. Div. March 26, 2009) (slip op. at 44). On remand, pursuant to our opinion, probation carried out an audit. At a hearing before Judge Melchionne, a probation employee testified that the audit used the support amount required by our opinion. The probation employee specifically confirmed that plaintiff received the higher support amount up to January 21, 2005. In an oral opinion issued June 7, 2010, the judge accepted that testimony and denied plaintiff's motion.
On this appeal, plaintiff once again contends that probation miscalculated one week of alimony from 2005. Having reviewed the record, we find no basis to disturb Judge Melchionne's decision. Plaintiff's appellate contentions are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
We next turn to the second appeal, which primarily concerns the emancipation of the parties' daughter. Judge Melchionne held a three-day bench trial on the parties' disputes over the daughter's emancipation, the son's college tuition, reimbursement of the children's unreimbursed medical expenses, and defendant's obligations for health insurance and life insurance.
This was the most pertinent evidence. At the time of the hearing, the daughter had graduated from college. She had applied and been accepted to a graduate degree program in media studies and media management. According to plaintiff, the daughter wanted to be a college professor.
Although she was an adult, the daughter did not testify. However, plaintiff admitted that the daughter had not even considered taking out student loans to pay for her graduate studies. Nor did the daughter make any effort to obtain full time employment to pay for graduate school. Instead, she and plaintiff expected defendant to pay for it. Plaintiff testified that she considered "graduate school to be college" and therefore believed the divorce judgment required defendant to pay for graduate school.
According to defendant's testimony, neither the daughter nor plaintiff consulted with him in advance concerning her choice of a graduate school, or how much it might cost. Nor did he agree to pay for graduate school. However, he testified that if the daughter attended graduate school, she could continue to be covered under his employer-provided health insurance.
Defendant already had significant alimony obligations. He also did not have a close relationship with the daughter. According to defendant, they only had a couple of brief conversations in the past seven years. He also testified that he could not afford to pay for the daughter's graduate school.
The judge issued an oral opinion on October 29, 2010. He found no basis to modify defendant's obligation to pay eighty-one percent of the son's college tuition. He also ordered defendant to reimburse plaintiff $1197.95 for the children's medical expenses. He then turned to the emancipation issue.
He began by noting that the daughter was a good student, who previously expressed interest in obtaining a law degree or an M.B.A. However, she instead was seeking a degree in media studies. The judge observed that the daughter herself would have been a critical witness to explain: what other schools might have been available to her, what jobs were available to her after her four-year degree, what effort she made to obtain part-time employment or full-time employment while attending graduate school . . . and what efforts she made to obtain loans.
Applying the Newburgh factors*fn1 , the judge found plaintiff did not demonstrate that if the daughter "was still living with the parents that the parents in this case would have contributed" to the cost of graduate school. He considered the enormous litigation expenses the parties had incurred, which they might otherwise have spent on tuition. He found no proof that either parent had a post-graduate degree, and considered that the daughter chose not to pursue a law degree or an M.B.A., graduate education for which the parents had previously expressed some support. The judge also considered that defendant had "dwindling" resources and already had to pay "$25,000 a year in alimony," plus child support. He found plaintiff presented no evidence as to the daughter's financial resources or her earning ability, or the availability of school loans. He credited defendant's testimony that his relationship with the daughter was "strained."
The judge also found that it was unclear whether the graduate degree the daughter was pursuing would actually help her get a job, as a college professor or in some other capacity. Relying on Ross v. Ross, 167 N.J. Super. 441 (Ch. Div. 1979), he found that "the burden to overcome the contention that going to graduate school full-time is an unnecessary luxury has not been met."
Based on his factual findings, the judge concluded that the daughter should be emancipated as of September 1, 2010, which was about three months after her graduation from college. He decided that defendant's obligation to provide her with medical insurance should terminate at that point, along with his obligation to maintain life insurance to cover his support obligation for her. He recalculated defendant's child support obligation to only reflect support for the parties' son, who was still a minor. Considering that the son was now attending college, the judge reduced defendant's support obligation for the son to $417 per week.
On this appeal, we do not write on a clean slate. We must defer to the trial judge's factual findings and credibility determinations, so long as they are supported by substantial credible evidence. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). And we owe particular deference to decisions of the Family Part because of its expertise in matrimonial issues. Ibid. Having reviewed the record in light of the applicable law, we find no basis to disturb Judge Melchionne's decision.
In her appellate brief, plaintiff raises the following points for our consideration:
POINT I: THE COURT ERRED IN ITS OCTOBER 29, 2010 DECISION FAILING TO RENDER A DECISION REGARDING VARIOUS FEES, FOR WHICH PLAINTIFF WAS SEEKING REIMBURSEMENT FROM DEFENDANT. POINT II: THE COURT SHOULD NOT HAVE TERMINATED MELANIE'S LIFE INSURANCE AS SHE IS STILL A STUDENT, AND THE PARTIES' JUDGMENT OF DIVORCE STIPULATES THAT THE LIFE INSURANCE MONIES SHOULD BE USED FOR EDUCATION.
POINT III: THE COURT ERRED IN TERMINATING MELANIE'S HEALTH INSURANCE AS THE DEFENDANT NEVER REQUESTED TO TERMINATE HER HEALTH INSURANCE, AND THE DEFENDANT'S HEALTH INSURANCE THROUGH HIS EMPLOYER PROVIDES COVERAGE TO AGE 24 (MAYBE LONGER WITH THE NEW HEALTH INSURANCE LAWS). THERE IS NO COST TO THE DEFENDANT FOR MELANIE'S CONTINUED COVERAGE AS HE HAS A FAMILY PLAN.
POINT IV: THE COURT ERRED IN EMANCIPATING MELANIE, AND NOT ORDERING THE DEFENDANT TO PAY TOWARDS GRADUATE SCHOOL COSTS.
POINT V: THE COURT ERRED BY NOT ALLOWING PLAINTIFF TO HAVE ESSENTIAL DISCOVERY.
POINT VI: THE COURT OMITTED AWARDING COUNSEL FEES IN ITS OCTOBER 29, 2010 DECISION, WHICH WERE REQUESTED BY PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY.
These arguments are all without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E). We affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in Judge Melchionne's well-reasoned opinion. We add only the following comments.
In light of Judge Melchionne's factual findings, which are supported by the evidence, there is simply no legal basis to require defendant to pay for the daughter's graduate school education. His decision to declare her emancipated is likewise unassailable. See Newburgh v. Arrigo, supra, 88 N.J. at 545; Ross v. Ross, supra, 167 N.J. Super. at 445-48.
In her reply brief, plaintiff concedes that defendant is continuing to provide the daughter with health insurance. Therefore, that issue is moot. The educational fees to which plaintiff refers in Point I of her brief were either not addressed in the plenary hearing or relate to the daughter's graduate school, for which defendant is not legally responsible. Likewise, because defendant is not obligated to pay for the emancipated daughter's support, he is not obligated to maintain life insurance to guarantee that support payments continue if he should die. Finally, on this record, we find no abuse of the judge's discretion in not awarding plaintiff counsel fees. See Eaton v. Grau, 368 N.J. Super. 215, 225 (App. Div. 2004).