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Groninger v. Groninger

Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division

September 9, 2013

JACKLYN A. GRONINGER, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
CRAIG L. GRONINGER, Defendant-Appellant.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

Submitted September 3, 2013

On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Burlington County, Docket No. FM-03-6004-98.

John M. Holliday, attorney for appellant.

Respondent has not filed a brief.

Before Judges Harris and Fasciale.

PER CURIAM

Defendant appeals from a June 22, 2012 order compelling him to pay fifty percent of his daughter's college tuition and expenses and to reimburse plaintiff for out-of-pocket college expenses, and denying his request to modify his child support obligation. We affirm in part and remand in part.

On June 16, 1990, plaintiff and defendant married. They have two children: a daughter and a son, born in 1992 and 1995, respectively. On November 4, 1998, the court entered a final judgment of divorce (FJOD). The parties share joint legal custody of their children, and defendant is obligated to pay child support in the amount of $170 per week. In June 2011, the daughter graduated high school and is currently attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Defendant's relationship with the daughter has been estranged for the last four to five years.

On or about March 29, 2012, plaintiff moved to compel defendant to, among other things, pay an equal share of their daughter's college tuition and related expenses. On June 7, 2012, defendant opposed the motion and cross-moved for a modification of his child support obligation. On June 22, 2012, the court conducted oral argument and issued an order granting in part plaintiff's motion and denying in full defendant's cross-motion. The court directed defendant to, among other things, pay fifty percent of the daughter's college expenses and reimburse plaintiff for out-of-pocket college expenses, and found that defendant failed to demonstrate a change of circumstances necessary to modify his child support obligation.

On appeal, defendant argues that the court erred by (1) ordering him to pay fifty percent of the daughter's college tuition and expenses; and (2) denying his cross-motion to modify his child support obligation.

In general, "the special jurisdiction and expertise of the family court requires that we defer to factual determinations if they are supported by adequate, substantial, and credible evidence in the record." Milne v. Goldenberg, 428 N.J.Super. 184, 197 (App. Div. 2012). Such deference will be "disturbed only upon a showing that the findings are 'manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant[, ] and reasonably credible evidence' to ensure there is no denial of justice." Ibid. (quoting Platt v. Platt, 384 N.J.Super. 418, 425 (App. Div. 2006)).

Family courts "possess[] broad equitable powers to accomplish substantial justice." Finger v. Zenn, 335 N.J.Super. 438, 446 (App. Div. 2000), certif. denied, 167 N.J. 633 (2001). This court "accord[s] great deference to discretionary decisions of Family Part judges." Milne, supra, 428 N.J.Super. at 197.

This court will not defer to a family court's decision, however, where the court abused its discretion. See, e.g., State ex rel. J.A., 195 N.J. 324, 340 (2008). "An abuse of discretion 'arises when a decision is 'made without a rational explanation, inexplicably departed from established policies, or rested on an impermissible basis.'" Milne, supra, 428 N.J.Super. at 197 (quoting Flagg v. Essex Cnty. Prosecutor, 171 N.J. 561, 571 (2002)). Furthermore, the family judge's legal decisions are subject to this court's plenary review. Crespo v. Crespo, 395 N.J.Super. 190, 194 (App. Div. 2007).

Family "judges are under a duty to make findings of fact and to state reasons in support of their conclusions." Heinl v. Heinl, 287 N.J.Super. 337, 347 (App. Div. 1996); R. 1:7-4(a). "'Meaningful appellate review is inhibited unless the judge sets forth the reasons for his or her opinion.'" Strahan v. Strahan, 402 N.J.Super. 298, 310 (App. Div. 2008) (quoting Salch v. Salch, 240 N.J.Super. 441, 443 (App. Div. 1990)). "Naked conclusions do not satisfy the purposes of [Rule] 1:7-4. Rather, the trial court must state clearly its factual findings and correlate them with the relevant legal conclusions." Curtis v. Finneran, 83 N.J. 563, 570 (l980).

Defendant argues that the court erred in compelling him to pay fifty percent of his daughter's college expenses without having addressed the factors enunciated in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 545 (1982). We agree.

"In appropriate circumstances, parental responsibility includes the duty to assure children of a college and even of a postgraduate education such as law school." Id . at 544. Family courts should consider all relevant factors when evaluating a claim for contribution toward the cost of higher education, including:

(I)whether the parent, if still living with the child, would have contributed toward the costs of the requested higher education; (2) the effect of the background, values and goals of the parent on the reasonableness of the expectation of the child for higher education; (3) the amount of the contribution sought by the child for the cost of higher education; (4) the ability of the parent to pay that cost; (5) the relationship of the requested contribution to the kind of school or course of study sought by the child; (6) the financial resources of both parents; (7) the commitment to and aptitude of the child for the requested education; (8) the financial resources of the child, including assets owned individually or held in custodianship or trust; (9) the ability of the child to earn income during the school year or on vacation; (10) the availability of financial aid in the form of college grants and loans;
(II)the child's relationship to the paying parent, including mutual affection and shared goals as well as responsiveness to parental advice and guidance; and (12) the relationship of the education requested to any prior training and to the overall long-range goals of the child.
[Id. at 545.]

See N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a) (listing these factors with regard to the parents' child support obligations).

The parties' FJOD provides, in pertinent part:

5. The parties mutually agree that they intend for their children to receive higher education after graduation from high school. To that end, they agree to share in the costs including but not limited to tuition, room, board, travel expenses, books, SAT expenses, application fees, incurred after each child has obtained any and all grants, loans[, ] and scholarships for which he or she qualifies.

In the June 22, 2012 order, the judge noted defendant's contention that he could not afford to pay for the daughter's college expenses, but did not specifically address, among other factors, his ability to pay. A family court's failure to address the Newburgh factors may result in a reversal and remand. See Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535, 540 (2006). And where genuine and substantial factual disputes exist, a plenary hearing is required. See Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 159 (1980); Hand v. Hand, 391 N.J.Super. 102, 105 (App. Div. 2007). We remand for the judge to conduct a plenary hearing and address the Newburgh factors.

Defendant further contends that the judge erred in denying his request to modify his child support obligation. We disagree.

We review a decision granting or denying a motion to modify child support under the abuse of discretion standard. Jacoby v. Jacoby, 427 N.J.Super. 109, 116 (App. Div. 2012). Family courts have "'substantial discretion in making a child support award. If consistent with the law, such an award will not be disturbed unless it is manifestly unreasonable, arbitrary, or clearly contrary to reason or to other evidence, or the result of whim or caprice.'" Ibid. (quoting Foust v. Glaser, 340 N.J.Super. 312, 315-16 (App. Div. 2001)).

It is well-settled that a party seeking to modify a child support obligation has the burden of proof and must make a prima facie showing of changed circumstances. Lepis, supra, 83 N.J. at 157; Jacoby, supra, 427 N.J.Super. at 116. "Any decision must be made in accordance with the best interests of the children." Jacoby, supra, 427 N.J.Super. at 116.

In the June 22, 2012 order, the judge stated that she did "not find that [the daughter's] commuting to college constitutes a substantial change in circumstances warranting modification of [d]efendant's child support obligation." We conclude that the judge did not abuse her discretion in finding that defendant failed to demonstrate a substantial change of circumstances as required by Lepis, supra. See Jacoby, supra, 427 N.J.Super. at 116.

Affirmed in part and remanded in part. We do not retain jurisdiction.


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