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Kasey A. Passaic, F/K/A v. Steven T. Schrader


June 12, 2012


On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FM-13-1935-99.

Per curiam.


Argued Telephonically March 30, 2012

Before Judges Fuentes, Koblitz and Haas.

Steven T. Schrader appeals from the July 8, 2011 Family Part order denying his application to emancipate the parties' son and terminate child support. He seeks enforcement of the parties' California marital settlement agreement (MSA). We agree with Schrader that the MSA takes precedence over New Jersey law regarding emancipation of a child under these circumstances and reverse.

The parties were married in California on June 1, 1991, and their son was born in April 1993. They obtained a final Judgment of Divorce (JOD) in November 1997, which approved and incorporated the September 18, 1997 MSA.

The wife, Kasey A. Passaic, was represented by counsel with regard to the MSA. Schrader represented himself. The MSA anticipated Passaic's move to New Jersey with their son after September 30, 1997. Paragraph 30 of the MSA was entitled "Reservation of Jurisdiction." It provided in part that "there shall be reserved to the San Diego County Superior Court the jurisdiction to . . . [s]upervise the overall enforcement of this Agreement." Paragraph 36e of the MSA reads:

This Agreement is entered into in the State of California and shall be construed and interpreted under and in accordance with the laws of said State, applicable to Agreements made, and to be wholly performed in the State of California.

Paragraph 10, "Child Support," states that the parties agree that it is in the best interest of their son that child support shall consist of each parent depositing $200 into the child's trust account each month. The paragraph goes on to state:

Child support shall cease on further order or when the child becomes emancipated, reaches age 19, reaches age 18 and is not a full-time high school student, or reaches age 18, is a full-time high school student, but is self-supporting, whichever occurs first.

Passaic docketed the California JOD in New Jersey on October 19, 1999. She then applied in New Jersey for a modification of child support. Her application was granted by an April 14, 2000 order stating that the final California JOD, which does not provide for a direct payment of child support, be and hereby is modified to reflect the ruling of this [c]court that the [d]efendant shall pay child support to the [p]laintiff on a weekly basis . . .

The order directed Schrader to pay support through the Monmouth County Probation Department pursuant to the New Jersey Child Support Guideline calculation attached to the order. See R. 5:6A.

In 2002, Passaic petitioned to modify the custody and visitation provisions of the MSA. The New Jersey Family Part Judge communicated with her California counterpart pursuant to the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), N.J.S.A. 2A:34-53 to -95, and the Parental Kidnapping Prevention Act (PKPA), 28 U.S.C.S. § 1738A. The two judges agreed that California retained jurisdiction over the matter because Schrader was still a California resident and the San Diego Superior Court did not decline jurisdiction. The San Diego Superior Court subsequently decided the issues.

In 2004, the New Jersey court reduced child support pursuant to the completed New Jersey Child Support Guidelines worksheet. The March 5, 2004 order reads in part: this [c]court has jurisdiction to consider the issue of child support in light of the finding that child support was never addressed in the State of California and that the Superior Court of New Jersey entered an [o]rder concerning the issue of child support on April 14, 2000 . .

In June 2011, Schrader moved in New Jersey without counsel to enforce the MSA by emancipating his son and terminating child support. The motion judge denied this motion in an order that reads in pertinent part:

Because this [c]court determined that child support had never been addressed in the State of California, the State of New Jersey was found to have jurisdiction over this issue. Because New Jersey has jurisdiction, New Jersey emancipation law, and not the California JOD or MSA shall govern the resolution of this issue.

Because the trial judge decided this case as a matter of law, without a plenary hearing, our review is de novo. Manalapan Realty v. Manalapan Twp. Comm., 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).

Neither party disputes that New Jersey law would deem their son unemancipated because he planned to attend college at the time of Schrader's motion. See Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543-44 (1982); see also Gac v. Gac, 351 N.J. Super. 54, 62 (App. Div. 2002). California, however, deems an unmarried child emancipated once the child "completes the 12th grade or attains the age of 19 years, whichever occurs first." Cal. Fam. Code § 3901 (Deering 2012). Furthermore, in California, parties may agree to extend the support obligation beyond the point of statutory emancipation. Cal. Fam. Code § 3587 (granting courts "the authority to approve a stipulated agreement by the parents to pay for the support of an adult child or for the continuation of child support after a child attains the age of 18 years"). Because an obligation to pay adult child support arises by agreement rather than by operation of law, it is enforceable under the rules of contract. In re Marriage of Smith & Maescher, 26 Cal. Rptr. 2d 133, 135-138 (Cal. Ct. App. 1993).

Passaic argues that the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.65 to -30.123, places exclusive jurisdiction over the duration of support in the first state to address child support, which Passaic argues is New Jersey. N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.72 reads in pertinent part:

a. A tribunal of this State issuing a support order consistent with the law of this State has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over a child support order:

(1) as long as this State remains the residence of the obligor, the individual obligee, or the child for whose benefit the support order is issued N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.107 reads in pertinent part:

a. The law of the issuing state governs the nature, extent, amount, and duration of current payments and other obligations of support and the payment of arrearages under the order.

If child support and its duration had not been addressed in California, New Jersey might have continuing exclusive jurisdiction over the child's emancipation, although such an interpretation has not been specifically decided in our courts. See Marshak v. Weser, 390 N.J. Super. 387 (App. Div. 2007). Passaic's lawyer drafted the MSA, which Schrader signed without counsel; thus, any ambiguity would be viewed in a light favorable to him. In re Estate of Miller, 90 N.J. 210, 221 (1982).

The MSA, however, unambiguously directs that child support be paid by both parents into a trust account for the child and that the child be deemed emancipated upon both turning eighteen and graduating from high school.

The March 5, 2004 order was incorrect in indicating that child support was never addressed in California. This error may have stemmed from a misunderstanding of the prior New Jersey order, which correctly stated that the California JOD did not provide for child support to flow from Schrader to Passaic.

Schrader did not appeal from these orders. He paid support to Passaic periodically as ordered by the New Jersey courts. Passaic argues that he therefore lost the right to appeal the finding expressed by the judge in the second order. However, appeals stem from orders, not from reasons for the orders. See State v. Adubato, 420 N.J. Super. 167, 176 (2011) (citing State v. Maples, 346 N.J. Super. 408, 417 (App. Div. 2002)). In choosing to comply with these orders rather than appeal, Schrader did not forfeit the right to contest another consequence that flowed from the flawed finding of the court.

Because the New Jersey orders modified the child support provision agreed-upon by the parties in the California JOD, California was the first state to order child support. In conformance with UIFSA, a New Jersey court can not modify any aspect of child support not modifiable in California. N.J.S.A. 2A:4-30.114c. In California, marital settlement agreements are governed by the principles generally applicable to contracts. Tanner v. Tanner, 67 Cal. Rptr. 2d 204, 207 (Cal. Ct. App. 1997). As the parties agreed to the terms of the emancipation provision set forth in the MSA, a California court cannot unilaterally modify that provision. See Bustamante v. Intuit, Inc., 45 Cal. Rptr. 3d 692, 699 (Cal. Ct. App. 2006) (stating that "a contract will be enforced if it is sufficiently definite for the court to ascertain the parties' obligations"); City of Atascadero v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., 80 Cal. Rptr. 2d 329, 349 (Cal. Ct. App. 1998) ("Courts must interpret contractual language in a manner which gives force and effect to every provision, and not in a way which renders some clauses nugatory, inoperative or meaningless.").

We therefore reverse the decision of the trial court and find the emancipation of their son is controlled by the parties' California agreement.

Reversed and remanded for the entry of an order in conformity with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.


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