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James andrew Bridge v. Shelda Elisabeth Maier

August 13, 2012


On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FM-14-45744-92.

Per curiam.


Submitted July 24, 2012

Before Judges Lihotz and Baxter.

In these appeals calendared back to back and combined for purposes of this opinion, plaintiff James Bridge appeals from various Family Part orders requiring him to pay child support and college expenses. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Plaintiff's briefs are rambling and confusing as they do not comply with the procedural rules governing appellate practice. See R. 2:6-1; R. 2:6-2 (setting forth with specificity the requirements of appellate briefs and appendices). Defendant Shelda Maier responds only to A-4766-10. In her brief, she does not specifically address plaintiff's challenges to the March 4, 2011 order from which the appeal is filed. Instead, she asserts procedural bars preclude relief and maintains the motion judge reasonably exercised his discretion when entering the order under review

The parties were married and have two children, who were born in 1988 and 1990. A final judgment of divorce dissolved the marriage on March 28, 1995, and provided for the support of the children. At some point, the parties agreed to contribute to the older child's college expenses, 37% by plaintiff and 63% by defendant.

In 2007, the parties also agreed to emancipate their older child, who was then nineteen. Other orders were entered fixing child support for the younger child, who was in the process of matriculating in college. At that time, the older child reentered college and defendant requested the Family Part unemancipate the older child and calculate the appropriate amount of plaintiff's financial support. She also sought an order fixing plaintiff's contribution toward the college expenses of the younger daughter.

On February 9, 2010, the Family Part judge granted defendant's motion, declaring the older child unemancipated. The judge ordered plaintiff to pay child support of $53 per week for the two children, as of November 18, 2009, and to pay 37% of each child's "college expenses." Plaintiff moved for reconsideration, which was denied on September 15, 2010.*fn1 An order dated September 24, 2010 determined plaintiff's outstanding college expense obligation totaled $16,157.68, which was ordered collected by Probation Services at the rate of $150 per week.

On appeal (A-0989-10), filed October 25, 2010, plaintiff challenges the Family Part orders dated February 9, and September 15 and 24, 2010. He argues the motion judge erred (1) in declaring the older child unemancipated at age twenty-one, while enrolled in Navy ROTC; (2) in failing to consider plaintiff's change in financial circumstances when fixing child support and his share of college expense contributions; (3) in not enforcing post-divorce agreements requiring defendant to communicate with him prior to selecting the younger child's college and to communicate prior to incurring any other debt for which he will be responsible; and (4) requiring the college expenses to be collected by Probation Services, which resulted in an income tax intercept that violates his current wife's right to receive her share of their joint income tax refund.

Our review of these issues is thwarted by an incomplete record. Plaintiff does not include the motion papers and his appendix comprises various documents, the origin of which is unclear. Also, no transcript of the motions exists as the court entered its findings and conclusions without oral argument.

Clear standards guide our limited review. We "'do not disturb the factual findings and legal conclusions of the trial judge unless we are convinced that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice.'" Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 484 (1974) (quoting Fagliarone v. Twp. of N. Bergen, 78 N.J. Super. 154, 155 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 40 N.J. 221 (1963)). See also Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998) (stating that family court factfinding warrants deference because family courts have "special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters"). However, we confer no deference to a trial court's interpretation of the law, which we review de novo to determine whether the judge correctly adhered to applicable legal standards. See Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995) ("A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference.").

A determination of emancipation is a legal concept, imposed when the fundamental dependent relationship between parent and child ends. It is not automatic and emancipation "need not occur at any particular age . . ." Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 543 (1982). Once a child reaches the age of majority, now eighteen, N.J.S.A. 9:17B-3, a parent has established a "prima facie, but not conclusive, proof of emancipation." Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543 (citing Alford v. Somerset Cnty. Welfare Bd., 158 N.J. Super. 302, 310 (App. Div. 1978)). See also Limpert v. Limpert, 119 N.J. Super. 438, 440 (App. Div. 1972). Nevertheless, "in appropriate circumstances, the privilege of parenthood carries with it the duty to assure a necessary education for children." Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543.

Deciding whether a child is emancipated requires a fact-sensitive analysis. Ibid. "[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.'" Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301, 308 (App. ...

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