October 21, 2013
TERESA A. RADCLIFFE, Plaintiff-Appellant,
GEORGE M. RADCLIFFE, JR., Defendant-Respondent.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued: October 9, 2013
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Sussex County, Docket No. FM-19-536-97.
Ann M. Pompelio argued the cause for appellant.
David H. Dumbroff argued the cause for respondent (O'Donnell & Dumbroff, attorneys; Mr. Dumbroff, on the brief).
Before Judges Simonelli and Haas.
In this post-judgment matrimonial matter, plaintiff appeals from the December 18, 2012 order of the Family Part granting defendant's motion to emancipate the parties' daughter, terminating his child support obligation, and excusing him from contributing toward the child's post-high school education and health care costs. We reverse.
The parties were married in 1987 and divorced on September 28, 1998. They have one daughter, who was eighteen years old at the time defendant filed his motion for emancipation. The parties' Property Settlement Agreement (PSA) required defendant to pay plaintiff $91 per week in child support. By the time of the post-judgment motion at issue here, defendant's child support obligation was $186 per week. Defendant also agreed to provide health insurance for the child and to contribute to her uncovered health care expenses.
a. The completion of the child's formal education on a matriculated basis, whether it be graduation from a four year undergraduate school or high school. It is understood that as long as the child is diligently pursuing his or her formal education through a four year high school or a four year undergraduate college education, is obtaining passing grades, and is deemed by the college or school to be a full time student, the child shall not be considered emancipated.
b. Upon the completion of any of the prior segments of the child's education and upon failure to commence the next segment of his or her education, or upon leaving school, the child shall be deemed emancipated. A child shall not be emancipated if one fails to continue his or her education because of some injury, illness or other cause beyond the child's control.
c. The marriage of the child.
d. Entry into the military or armed forces of the child.
The parties also agreed to jointly pay for their daughter's post-high school education. Paragraph 15 of the PSA states:
The parties agree that, if the child has the ability and if they are financially able, to pay for the child's college education, which costs shall include tuition, room and board, books, miscellaneous fees, and reasonable costs of transportation (5 round trips per year). The parties agree that the child shall apply for all financial aid, loans, grants and scholarships available. After all financial assistance is calculated, then the parties shall share that net amount due in proportion to their gross incomes at that time.
The daughter graduated from high school on June 21, 2012.Prior to graduation, she was accepted to Johnson & Wales University, a private, out-of-state college. Although she qualified for financial aid, the net tuition and costs for this four-year college were $30, 000 per year.
Recognizing her parents were unable to afford this amount, the daughter implemented an innovative plan to assist them in funding her education. Just one month after her graduation from high school, she enrolled in a twenty-six week "massage and bodywork program" at an accredited vocational institute. By obtaining certification as a massage therapist, the daughter hoped to work during college and contribute toward her education costs. The tuition for this program was $10, 995. She took out a loan for approximately $3900 and looked to her parents to finance the remainder.
After obtaining her certification, the daughter intended to enroll at the county community college for the Spring 2013 semester. She planned to attend community college for two years and then transfer to a New Jersey State, four-year college or university to complete the last two years of her undergraduate education. The community college cost approximately $2250 per semester. However, with the financial aid she obtained, this amount would be reduced to approximately $700 per semester. The child would continue to reside with her mother and commute to school.
The daughter sent defendant a copy of the tuition bill for the massage therapy program with a note that stated, "I got financial aid. Mom paid her portion. You need to pay yours to me or to the school." In November 2012, defendant responded by filing a motion to emancipate the daughter. He asserted he had not had any contact with his child for the past eighteen months and had not been consulted on her education plans. Defendant argued that, because the daughter was not enrolled in a four-year college, she should be deemed emancipated pursuant to the terms of Paragraph 16.a of the PSA. Plaintiff filed a cross-motion, seeking to require defendant to pay his proportionate share of the daughter's massage therapy school and community college costs, together with continued child support and contributions toward her health care expenses.
On December 18, 2012, the trial court entered an order granting defendant's motion to emancipate the parties' daughter as of June 21, 2012, the date of her high school graduation. The court found that Paragraph 16.a of the PSA required that the child be emancipated if she was not a full-time student at a four-year college. Because the child was then enrolled in massage therapy school and scheduled to begin community college in the Spring 2013 semester, and neither of these institutions was a "four-year college, " the court stated it was "obligated to enforce the clear, unequivocal language of the parties' agreement" and declare the child emancipated. Therefore, the court ruled that defendant had no further obligation to contribute toward her education costs, pay child support or health care costs, or provide medical insurance for her. This appeal followed.
On appeal, plaintiff argues that the trial court's ruling emancipating the daughter was the product of a mistaken exercise of discretion. We agree.
The decision to emancipate a minor child from his or her parents necessarily involves a Family Court's inherent equitable powers. Dolce v. Dolce, 383 N.J.Super. 11, 18 (App. Div. 2006). As a result, we review a trial court's decision regarding the emancipation of a child under an abuse of discretion standard. See Sears Mortg. Corp. v. Rose, 134 N.J. 326, 354 (1993).
The emancipation of a child does not automatically occur at any specific age, but rather, is a fact-sensitive inquiry. Dolce, supra, 383 N.J.Super. at 17. The essential question "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. Div. 1997) (quoting Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J.Super. 593, 598 (Ch. Div. 1995)). In making this determination a court must engage in "a critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child's need, interests, and independent resources, the family's reasonable expectations, and the parties' financial ability, among other things." Dolce, supra, 383 N.J.Super. at 18 (citing Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 545 (1982)).
"[A] question regarding the interpretation or construction of a contract is a legal one and our review is plenary, with no special deference to the trial judge's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts." Barr v. Barr, 418 N.J.Super. 18, 31 (App. Div. 2011). Where matters in dispute on a post-judgment motion are addressed in an agreement between the parties, the agreement is "'entitled to considerable weight with respect to [its] validity and enforceability' in equity, provided [it is] fair and just." Dolce, supra, 383 N.J.Super. at 20 (quoting Petersen v. Petersen, 85 N.J. 638, 642 (1981)).
Where the meaning of the agreement is in dispute, "[t]he court's role is to consider what is written [in the agreement] in the context of the circumstances at the time of drafting and to apply a rational meaning in keeping with the 'expressed general purpose.'" Pacifico v. Pacifico, 190 N.J. 258, 266 (2007) (quoting Atl. N. Airlines, Inc. v. Schwimmer, 12 N.J. 293, 302 (1953)). Nevertheless, the interpretation and enforcement of provisions of an agreement governing support of children is always guided and restricted by fundamental principles recognizing the parents' shared obligation to support their children and their children's right to receive it. Dolce, supra, 383 N.J.Super. at 18-20.
Applying these standards, we are constrained to conclude that the trial court mistakenly exercised its discretion when it emancipated the parties' daughter. At the time of the court's decision, the child had just graduated high school, was engaged full-time in post-high school educational pursuits, lived with her mother, and was financially dependent upon her parents. There is no evidence in the record to suggest that the child had moved beyond the sphere and influence exercised by her parents.
Paragraph 16.a of the PSA states that the child would be deemed emancipated upon "[t]he completion of [her] formal education on a matriculated basis, whether it be graduation from a four year undergraduate school or high school." The general purpose of this provision was obviously to ensure that the daughter would be entitled to support so long as she diligently continued in the pursuit of an undergraduate degree. Indeed, in Paragraph 15 of the PSA, the parties agreed to jointly fund the entire net cost of the child's college expenses.
The daughter was accepted to Johnson & Wales University, an out-of-state, four-year college. Had she attended that school, her parents would have been responsible for paying at least $30, 000 per year in tuition, room and board, and other expenses. However, the child showed great initiative in formulating a plan to obtain an undergraduate degree at a fraction of that cost. One month after her high school graduation, the child enrolled in a massage therapy school in order to obtain a certification that would help her obtain employment and contribute to her college costs. She also enrolled in a community college, with a plan to move to a State college to complete her education. There was absolutely no break in her quest for a college degree. See Keegan v. Keegan, 326 N.J.Super. 289, 294-95 (App. Div. 1999) (holding that a child is not emancipated even if he or she takes a brief hiatus from college where the child has not moved beyond his or her parents' sphere of influence).
Under these circumstances, we believe the court mistakenly interpreted the terms of Paragraph 16.a in an overly restrictive fashion to mandate the daughter's emancipation once she did not immediately enroll in a "four year undergraduate school." If all goes as planned, the child will receive an undergraduate degree from a four-year State college or university, which was the goal set by the parties in Paragraph 15 of their agreement. Having "missed" only one semester of college, while she was receiving vocational training to enable her to get a good-paying job to defray expenses, the daughter should be able to earn her degree within a reasonable time frame and at a fraction of the cost for which the parents would otherwise be responsible. The purpose of the PSA will therefore be achieved. Thus, we conclude the court erred in emancipating the child.
While the trial court held that defendant was no longer obligated to contribute toward the daughter's education costs because she was emancipated, it also stated that defendant should still be excused from paying his proportionate share because the daughter failed to consult him about her plans. The court found that defendant and the child "have no meaningful relationship" and, therefore, it was "inclined to agree that [defendant] is viewed solely as a 'wallet' in regard to his obligation for college contribution." We disagree.
Even had the parties' PSA not addressed the issue of the daughter's education after high school, it has long been held that the obligation and right to child support include "a necessary education for children" whether it be in a "vocational school" or a "college." Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543-44. The existence and extent of a parent's obligation for the cost of such post-secondary education depend upon consideration of the expectations and relevant abilities of the child and his or her parents under factors identified in Newburgh and Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535, 543 (2006). The factors are:
(1) 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; (11) 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 543 (quoting Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 545).]
No one factor is determinative; all factors should be considered and weighed. Id. at 545.
In excusing defendant from contribution to the daughter's vocational school and community college expenses, the trial court focused almost solely on the daughter's lack of a relationship with defendant and did not examine the other factors in detail. However, accepting that defendant and his daughter have not had a close relationship and that she did not fully apprise him of her post-high school plans, this was still only one factor of the many that needed to be considered in determining whether defendant was required to contribute toward the child's education costs.
A complete and fair consideration of the other factors compels the conclusion that defendant is obligated to contribute toward the daughter's massage therapy school and current community college costs. Defendant agreed in Paragraph 15 of the PSA that it was important for the daughter to attend college. While he is opposed to contributing to her vocational school expenses, the reality is that those costs were incurred as part of an overall plan to obtain an affordable college education for the child. The cost of the daughter's education at the vocational school and at community college is far less than a single year at Johnson & Wales, a "four-year college." The net cost of the massage therapy school was approximately $7000, with the community college costing about $700 a semester. Defendant has not asserted that he is financially unable to pay his proportionate share of these costs.
The child has a commitment to her education, a commitment to working during college to help pay her way, and a commitment to earning as much financial aid as possible to reduce her parents' burden. After considering all of these factors, we conclude they weigh substantially in favor of requiring defendant to pay his share of the daughter's vocational school and college expenses.
Accordingly, we reverse the trial court's December 18, 2012 order emancipating the daughter as of June 21, 2012. We remand for entry of an order reinstating defendant's child support obligation as of that date, and determining his share of the child's vocational school and college expenses. Because the child is not emancipated, defendant must also provide the child with health insurance and pay his share of her uncovered medical expenses as required by the PSA.
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings in conformity with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.