June 22, 2012
FRANCIS ROBERTS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
STELLA SCARANO, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County, Docket No. FM-13-151-98.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Submitted May 2, 2012
Before Judges Graves and Koblitz.
Plaintiff Francis Roberts appeals from the August 19, 2011 order denying his renewed request*fn1 to emancipate his estranged nineteen-year-old son, who is working part-time and taking one course at Bergen Community College.*fn2 The motion judge applied the parents' inter-spousal agreement (IA) definition of emancipation to the circumstances and determined the younger son not to be emancipated. After reviewing the record in light of the contentions advanced on appeal, we reverse and remand for a plenary hearing.
The parties divorced on October 22, 1997, after almost ten years of marriage. Their two sons were then almost seven and five years old. In the IA, the parties defined emancipation in pertinent part as:
3.8 . . . [T]he first occurring of any one of the following six events:
(a) Reaching the age of eighteen  years or completion of high school or four years of academic college education at an accredited school, whichever last occurs;
(f) Engaging in full-time employment upon or after the child's attainment of eighteen  years of age, except that the child's engagement in full-time employment during vacation and/or summer periods shall not be deemed emancipation.
The parties agreed to equally divide the cost of their children's college education, stating "their intention that their unemancipated children, if academically inclined, should attend college." (IA ¶ 3.9)
Defendant Stella Scarano submitted a letter from the son's employer indicating that he earned $200 a week for working twelve hours at a security company. She argued "I honestly don't encourage [our son] to get a full[-]time job because I think if he gets a full[-]time job and he makes really good money, he won't go to college." The young man lives at home with his mother, who supports him except for his car payments and a few extracurricular activities.
The trial judge determined that the young man was not employed full-time, and reasoned that the IA did not specify that a child must attend college full-time to avoid emancipation. He further reasoned that any college attendance, coupled with a lack of full-time employment, would defeat emancipation for four years after high school under the terms of the IA.
Plaintiff has remarried and lives with his wife and their two children in Georgia. His income is reduced from the $74,000 he received from earnings and a settlement at the time of the IA to the current $34,842 he receives annually through pension and settlement payments. His wife earns $40,000 annually. Defendant receives $74,264 annually through pension and earned income. The parties have an older unemancipated son attending Rutgers University.
We understand the judge's concern for the burden placed on defendant by supporting the parties' nineteen-year-old son. The judge thoughtfully considered the parties' arguments and greatly reduced plaintiff's financial obligations without emancipating his younger son. The ruling anticipates that this child will remain unemancipated for four years from his high school graduation, as long as he takes a college course and does not work full-time.
We do not find this interpretation of the parties' IA to be the only reasonable one, however. Absent an agreement to the contrary, children are generally viewed as emancipated if they do not attend college full-time. The IA reflects that the parties anticipated that one or both of their children might not be "academically inclined" and therefore not suited to a college education. See Filippone v. Lee 304 N.J. Super 301, 311-12 (App. Div. 1997).
We acknowledge our general deference to factual findings made by Family Part judges when they are supported by "'adequate, substantial, credible evidence.'" Parish v. Parish, 412 N.J. Super. 39, 47 (App. Div. 2010) (quoting Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998)). Such deference is warranted "in light of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters[.]" Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 413. "Minimally adequate fact finding requires a discussion that demonstrates that the court has heard and addressed the relevant facts and claims under the controlling legal standards." Gordon v. Rozenwald, 380 N.J. Super. 55, 76-77 (App. Div. 2005). "A trial court's rulings in such matters are discretionary and not overturned unless the court abused its discretion, failed to consider controlling legal principles or made findings inconsistent with or unsupported by competent evidence." Id. at 76.
Here, however, the motion judge's findings were based solely on the parties' written submissions and oral argument. Thus, we do not owe the same degree of deference to the motion judge's fact finding as we would if the judge had made credibility findings after a plenary hearing. See P.B. v. T.H., 370 N.J. Super. 586, 601 (App. Div. 2004) ("Deference is especially appropriate when the evidence is largely testimonial and involves questions of credibility because, having heard the case, and seen and observed the witnesses, the trial court has a better perspective than a reviewing court in evaluating the veracity of witnesses."). The parties submitted conflicting certifications regarding their disparate interpretation of the IA.
The "contractual nature of matrimonial agreements has long been recognized" in New Jersey. Pacifico v Pacifico, 190 N.J. 258, 265 (2007) (citations omitted). As a general rule, a contract's terms should be enforced as the parties intended. Id. at 266.
The only method to determine the parties' intentions when entering into the IA is to hold a plenary hearing. Their view of what they intended when their son was a child will invariably be colored by their current relationship with him and their present financial situation. The judge must therefore conduct a hearing to evaluate the parties' testimony to determine their true intent at the time the IA was signed. The judge may certainly expand the reach of the plenary hearing to include the number of hours the son is presently working and any other factual issues he deems appropriate.
Reversed and remanded for a plenary hearing. We do not retain jurisdiction.