Just a quick note on a recent victory, one of many during “emancipation season”. This one was great because it was quick and I won the case for under the small retainer that I charged the client. Not only did he win but he got money back from me!
If you need help, call the team of tough, smart Somerset County Child Support Lawyers today.
I try to tell people to get an attorney from day one but I can’t reach everyone. My most recent example is one of my new clients. He went to court without an attorney for emancipation and was first denied for lack of service even though he showed the court that the other side was indeed served! He tried again and this time, he won. Child emancipated. Case over right? Not quite.
The Probation Department, for whatever reason, didn’t care about the Court’s order and refused to adjust his child support. Even worse, is that the child should have been emancipated back to a couple of months prior to the last order but the court made up an arbitrary date for emancipation. He hired me and we are fixing the problem. However, he may be stuck with the wrong emancipation date as he did not file a motion in time or an appeal. Thus, he left thousands of dollars on the table.
Got a call today from a guy that works right next to one of my offices. Small world. He wanted to file a motion for emancipation now for a child that is graduating in December. That is rarely a good idea since anything can happen between now and then. Thus, I advised him to call me back in October because his motion needs to be “ripe” or ready to be heard. However, that doesn’t mean that I file a motion after graduation. Instead, I try to time it so that it will be heard within a week or two after graduation.
This was a very interesting case. My client’s daughter was being home-schooled for years. Even though the child should have been half way through college, she was barely half way through high school. There is no real case law on this issue so I had to get creative. The other side really fought hard but I turned their arguments against them. The case was so hard fought that both sides were arguing up to the day of court with new letters and documents being constantly sent to the court.
Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the child was deemed emancipated. This was a great win to kick off the new year.
If you want a team of smart, aggressive attorneys to work on your emancipation motion, call today to speak to a Bergen County Child Support Lawyer
This case seems pretty straightforward and I find it odd that it went to trial. You have to be careful what you agree to in a PSA with regard to child support and college expenses. NJ law makes it clear that child support and college expenses are separate yet related obligations. This case captures some of the NJ child support laws regarding a child in college and the importance of following the language in the PSA. Before you file a motion with the court, call our lawyers to discuss the NJ college expenses law and how it impacts your case.
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ROBIN HORNE, n.k.a.
BRETT D. HORNE,
Submitted February 25, 2009 – Decided
Before Judges Rodríguez, Payne and Waugh.
On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Hunterdon County, Docket No. FM-10-387-04.
Law Offices of John H. Rittley, LLC, attorneys for appellant (Mr. Rittley, of counsel and on the brief).
Respondent has not filed a brief.
Defendant Brett D. Horne appeals from orders of the Family Part that require him to: (1) pay for college expenses for his daughter Amanda; (2) reimburse plaintiff Robin Manfredi (formerly Horne) for certain expenses in connection with the marital residence; and (3) pay Manfredi’s counsel fees. We affirm in part and remand in part.
The parties were divorced in 2004 after nineteen years of marriage. They have two children, Amanda and Nicole. Nicole was found to be emancipated in a November 2007 order and is not involved in this appeal. In an earlier appeal involving the parties, we determined that Amanda became emancipated when she became a part-time student and started full-time employment. Horne v. Horne, No. A-2043-07T2 (App. Div. Nov. 13, 2008).
As it relates to Amanda, this appeal concerns responsibility for payment for her first two years of college at Florida State University. The issue is governed by Paragraph 12 of the parties’ property settlement agreement (PSA), which provides as follows:
The parties agree that, if the children have the ability, and if they are financially able to pay for the children’s college education, which costs shall include tuition, room and board, books, and reasonable costs of transportation (4 round trips per year), the children shall either attend a state university or community college. The parties agree that the children shall apply and be responsible for all financial aid, loans, grants and scholarships available to them prior to either party contributing to their education. After all financial assistance is calculated, then the parties shall share that net amount due with the Husband being responsible for 60% and the Wife being responsible for 40%. Said college tuition shall not exceed the cost of two years of college at Rutgers the State University of New Jersey. The parties shall modify the then existing child support order when either child enters college. The Husband shall pay 60% costs for both children’s college tuition, costs, fees, room and board. At that time, the Husband shall pay $800 per month in child support for the remaining unemancipated child and contribute 60% of the costs for the other child’s college tuition, costs, fees, room and board during the (30) thirty weeks of the college year. The Wife shall contribute 40% of the college tuition, costs, fees, room and board for the child enrolled as a full time student. The parties agree that Husband shall pay the $1000.00 per month child support for the remaining 22 weeks of the year when the college classes are not in session. Said payments shall be made directly to the Wife. The parties agree to split the first two years of the college costs and tuition, including books, fees, room and board with Husband paying 60% and Wife paying 40%. Neither party shall have an obligation to contribute after the first two years of college for costs but the child support obligation shall continue until the child is emancipated as defined herein. This agreement is based upon the parties understanding of their respective earnings, Husband earning $95,000.00 and Wife earning $58,000.00. The Husband’s share shall not exceed the equivalent of 60% of the cost of Rutgers the State University of New Jersey and that the Husband shall only be required to contribute for two years of college education for each child.
Unlike the parties in Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535 (2006), and Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), the parties now before us discussed and agreed in advance on their respective obligations in the event their children sought to attend college. In such cases, the obligation of the courts is to interpret and enforce the parties’ own agreement. Massar v. Massar, 279 N.J. Super. 89, 93 (App. Div. 1995) (citing Petersen v. Petersen, 85 N.J. 638, 642 (1981)). We will not draft a new agreement for the parties. Ibid.; Rolnick v. Rolnick, 262 N.J. Super. 343, 352 (App. Div. 1993) (quoting Berkowitz v. Berkowitz, 55 N.J. 564, 569 (1970)).
Although Amanda and her father had discussed her attendance at college prior to the divorce, their relationship became strained thereafter. Consequently, he was not involved in her choice of Florida State. Nevertheless, Amanda asked Horne to attend her student orientation with her and he was initially willing to do so, but the plan fell through when Horne insisted on their being accompanied by his girlfriend.
It appears from the record that Amanda attended Florida State as a full-time student during the 2005-2006 and 2006-2007 academic years. She became a part-time student for the 2007-2008 academic year, during which she was also working full-time and attempting to establish Florida residency to lower her educational expenses.1
On May 24, 2006, Manfredi filed a motion in aid of litigants rights, R. 1:10-3, seeking to enforce Horne’s college-payment obligation under the PSA. A plenary hearing was held over several days during the second half of 2007. The trial judge determined that Horne was obligated to contribute to Amanda’s tuition and that he was able to do so during the relevant period, noting in particular a significant discrepancy between the income reported by Horne to taxing authorities and on his application to refinance the former marital residence.
Our scope of review of the trial judge’s factual findings is limited. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411 (1988); Crespo v. Crespo, 395 N.J. Super. 190, 193-94 (App. Div. 2007). We are generally bound by the trial court’s findings of fact “when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence.” Cesare, supra, 154 N.J. at 411-12. This is especially so when questions of credibility are involved. Id. at 412. In addition, “[b]ecause of the family courts’ special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding.” Id. at 413.
We are satisfied from our review of the record that the trial judge’s factual findings should not be disturbed with respect to the costs incurred by Amanda and Horne’s ability to pay. Questions of credibility were for the trial judge to determine. Id. at 412. The expenses were documented and supported by testimony the trial judge found to be credible. Manfredi testified that the expenses at Florida State, including living expenses, were slightly more than tuition at Rutgers without including living expenses. However, the PSA requires the parents to contribute to both tuition and room and board during the first two years of college. Consequently, Horne’s suggestion that the total cost at Florida State must be compared with tuition only at Rutgers is incorrect. Horne did not come forward with contrary evidence to support his claim that the applicable costs of attending Florida State exceeded those payable at Rutgers. Amanda did not become a part-time student until her third year, at which time she was emancipated pursuant to the PSA and, in any event, her parents obligation to pay two years of college expenses under the PSA had ended.
The loan at issue was taken out by Amanda and guaranteed by her maternal grandfather. It was not the type of subsidized student loan referred to in the PSA. The trial court was satisfied that Amanda applied for, but did not receive, financial aid.
With respect to Horne’s ability to pay, the trial court’s determination that Horne understated his income was supported by the record and the credibility findings. As noted, Horne made significantly different representations about his income and income-producing capacity depending upon the forum, court, or loan application, involved.
We also reject Horne’s contention that the trial judge unduly favored Manfredi because she was representing herself. We find no support for that assertion in the record. The sua sponte reopening of testimony by the trial judge to address Newburgh factors was well within his discretion. See Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 545. It must be noted that the educational expenses sought were for the benefit of Amanda, not Manfredi.
Consequently, we affirm the trial court’s orders with respect to Horne’s obligations to pay for Amanda’s first two years of college, as he agreed to do in the PSA.
Horne also appeals from the award of counsel fees to the attorney who filed the motion on Manfredi’s behalf, although she was pro se at the time of the evidential hearings. In his written opinion of January 29, 2008, the trial judge stated:
I have found defendant in violation of litigant’s rights. I have granted most of the relief requested by the plaintiff. I find that there is bad faith on the part of the defendant in misstating his income. I, therefore, conclude that plaintiff is entitled to counsel fees for the motion that was filed on May 24, 2006.
“The award of counsel fees in matrimonial actions is discretionary with the trial court, R. 4:42-9(a)(1), and an exercise thereof will not be disturbed in the absence of a showing of abuse.” Berkowitz, supra, 55 N.J. at 570. See also R. 5:3-5(c). “We recognize the historical right of trial judges to exercise discretion to award counsel fees in certain matrimonial cases pursuant to Rule 4:42-9(a)(1), without always requiring a plenary hearing where there is a dispute.” Jacobitti v. Jacobitti, 263 N.J. Super. 608, 619 (App. Div.),aff’d, 135 N.J. 571 (1993).
Our review of the issue of counsel fees has been hampered by the fact that the underlying order of March 28, 2008, which set the amount of the fees, and any statement of reasons by the trial judge are not contained in the record. “[A] trial court must analyze the [relevant] factors in determining an award of reasonable counsel fees and then must state its reasons on the record for awarding a particular fee.” R.M. v. Supreme Court of New Jersey, 190 N.J. 1, 12 (2007).2
In any event, it appears from the pleadings contained in the record that Horne’s attorney did not timely receive the certification of services filed by Manfredi’s former counsel and that he did not know that an application had actually been made until shortly before he received the trial court’s March 28, 2008, order granting counsel fees. He raised the issue by motion, but the trial judge declined to address the issue because of the pending appeal. Consequently, we remand the issue for further consideration by the trial judge and do not retain jurisdiction.
After considering Horne’s remaining contentions in light of the record, his brief, and the applicable law, we conclude they are without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion and affirm substantially for the reasons set forth in the trial judge’s comprehensive written opinion dated January 29, 2008, and his statement of reasons for denying the motion for reconsideration dated April 18, 2008. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
Affirmed in part and remanded in part.
April 3, 2009
Just won a case last week for a great client. The father of her child tried to emancipate her just because the child had a baby. However, the child still lived at home and was being supported by my client. The court agreed with us and found that a child having a baby has nothing to do with regard to whether or not the child has moved beyond the sphere of influence of the parents. So, we won the case fairly easily.
If you want an attorney that will back down to no one, call the team of tough, smart Morris County Child Support Lawyers today.
Client came in my office today and I really felt bad for him. He has been handling his child support cases for years by himself with no success. He should have filed a motion to reduce his child support when his older child was away at college but did not to so. He also botched his motion to reduce his child support when he was unemployed. As a result, his arrears swelled to over $27,000.
He then filed a motion to emancipate his older child which was denied even though his ex-wife did not oppose it! He also failed to file a motion to reduce his child support with regard to his younger child being away at college.
While I can help him reduce most of his arrears, I can’t make all of it go away. If he would have worked with an attorney in the beginning, he would have likely never had an arrears problem. For only a few thousand dollars, he could have saved $30,000 or more.
Don’t let this happen to you, call the team of tough, smart Cumberland County Child Support Lawyers today to discuss your case.
If you needed another reason as to why you need, an attorney, here is a great one. This judge decided the case using the wrong legal standard! Unfortunately, stuff like this does happen. If you are facing an emancipation case in any court in New Jersey, call the team of tough, smart NJ Emancipation Lawyers today to discuss your case.
SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY
DOCKET NO. A-2427-07T3
HELENE L. RIGNEY,
February 27, 2009
Submitted January 21, 2009 – Decided
Before Judges Winkelstein and Gilroy.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Middlesex County, Docket No. FM-12-2495-97.
Helene L. Rigney, appellant pro se.
Steven Brandes has not filed a brief.
Defendant Helene L. Rigney appeals from that part of the September 20, 2007 order of the Family Part, as amended by a second order of the same day and by an order of September 26, 2007, that declared the parties’ younger son emancipated. She also appeals from the orders of November 2, 2007, and December 21, 2007, denying her motions for reconsideration. We reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Following fifteen years of marriage, the parties were divorced on July 29, 1997. Three children were born of the marriage: Raymond, born December 1982; Eric, born July 1985; and Jessica, born June 1990. The judgment of divorce incorporated the parties’ July 9, 1997 property settlement agreement (PSA), and addressed issues of child custody and child support, including the parties’ obligations to contribute toward the children’s college expenses in proportion to the parties’ financial abilities.
Initially, the parties shared legal custody of the three children, with plaintiff designated as the custodial parent. In March 1998, an order was entered transferring physical custody of Raymond to defendant. In May 1998, a child support order was entered as to both parties. In September 2000, plaintiff consented to a transfer of physical custody of Eric and Jessica to defendant. On July 23, 2004, the court entered an order denying plaintiff’s motion seeking to have Raymond and Eric declared emancipated.1
In September 2007, plaintiff moved a second time to have the parties’ sons emancipated. At the time of oral argument on September 20, 2007, Raymond was age twenty-four, had recently graduated from law school, and had begun a judicial clerkship. Based on those findings, the court declared Raymond emancipated. Defendant does not challenge that determination.
Plaintiff sought to have Eric emancipated, alleging that he could no longer afford to pay Eric’s college expenses, his son having already attended four years of college. Defendant objected, contending that part of Eric’s difficulty in completing college was because of health issues. After referencing the factors in Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529, 545 (1982), the trial court declared Eric emancipated as of the day of oral argument. As to Eric’s college expenses, the court directed that Eric should obtain personal loans for college, and if he successfully completes his college education in the next three years, he could then move for reimbursement of his educational expenses from his parents. The court entered a confirming order on September 20, 2007. On that same day and on September 26, 2007, the court entered two amended orders increasing plaintiff’s child support obligation for the parties’ daughter.
At oral argument, defendant accepted the court’s reasoning that it would be better to compel Eric to pay for his own college expenses in hope that he will pursue his college education more diligently than he has in the past. However, defendant twice moved for reconsideration of the court’s order declaring Eric emancipated. Although the motions also sought other miscellaneous relief, the parts of both motions seeking reconsideration of the court’s determination of Eric’s emancipation were denied.
On appeal, defendant argues: 1) the record does not support the court’s finding that Eric was emancipated, not having left the sphere of parental influence; 2) the court erred in determining Eric emancipated based solely on his lack of commitment to his educational endeavors; 3) the court did not consider Eric’s medical condition in determining him emancipated; 4) the court improperly cited the Newburgh factors as a basis for emancipation; 5) the court improperly reversed the prior order denying emancipation without proof of a change of circumstances; and 6) the court did not conduct a plenary hearing.
Appellate review of a trial court’s fact-finding function is limited. Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). The general rule is that a trial court’s findings are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, and credible evidence. Ibid. Such deference is especially owed to family court fact-findings “[b]ecause of the family courts’ special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters.” Id. at 413. An appellate court, however, does not owe any special deference to a trial court’s legal conclusions. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995).
Generally, “emancipation is the act by which a parent relinquishes the right to custody and is relieved of the duty to support a child.” Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543. In New Jersey, there is no fixed age when emancipation occurs. Gac v. Gac, 186 N.J. 535, 542 (2006). While a rebuttable presumption against emancipation occurs prior to reaching the age of majority, N.J.S.A. 9:17B-3, attainment of age eighteen establishes prima facie, but not conclusive, proof of emancipation. Ibid. For example, emancipation may occur upon a child’s marriage, upon induction into military service, by court order based on a child’s best interest, or by attainment of an appropriate age. Newburgh, supra, 88 N.J. at 543. The issue is fact sensitive. Filippone v. Lee, 304 N.J. Super. 301, 308 (App. Div. 1997).
“[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.'” Ibid. (quoting Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593, 598 (Ch. Div. 1995)). This determination requires “a critical evaluation of the prevailing circumstances including the child’s need[s], interests, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the parties’ financial ability, among other things.” Dolce v. Dolce, 383 N.J. Super. 11, 18 (App. Div. 2006). It is against these principles that we consider defendant’s arguments.
The trial court decided plaintiff’s emancipation motion on the arguments of the parties and their certifications filed with the court. Plaintiff certified in his August 7, 2007 certification that Eric turned eighteen on July 2, 2003; that during the prior four years, Eric had attended three colleges “on and off” without acquiring a two-year degree; Eric no longer resides with defendant, having moved out of defendant’s home to reside with other individuals in New Brunswick; and Eric was employed as a security guard more than twenty hours a week, earning money “to pay for his car, games and other personal interests.”
In her opposing certification defendant countered that, although Eric presently resides in New Brunswick, it “is primarily for the ease of the commute to DeVry [Technical Institute] in North Brunswick, and is not a permanent move.” Defendant asserted that Eric’s living in New Brunswick with other roommates is not an immediate emancipation event because “Eric plans to attend DeVry Technical Institute in September and will be living [in New Brunswick] during the school [t]erm. DeVry does not offer on[-]campus housing, and seeing that [I live] in Warren County, the commute time is extraordinary.”
As to Eric’s support, defendant certified that she presently pays for his car insurance and phone bill; and provides him money for food, clothing, and all other means of support. She denied that Eric has been going to college for four years “on and off,” but rather has continuously attended college during the four years without any gaps. Although defendant concedes that Eric transferred colleges during that time period, she stated that the primary reason he left the first college was because of the long commute to Newark where he was attending college after she moved to Phillipsburg. In addition, Eric suffered cardiac problems during the fall of 2005 and spring 2006, causing him to miss classes. Concerning Eric’s present intentions, defendant informed the court that he desires to continue his education and attend DeVry. Lastly, as to Eric’s employment as a security guard, defendant stated that “[t]his is certainly not a full[-]time job and is merely a part[-]time [j]ob for extra spending money while he is preparing to attend [s]chool [f]ull [t]ime in the fall.”
We agree with defendant that the trial court did not apply the proper legal standard in deciding the issue of Eric’s emancipation. The Newburgh factors that the court referenced concern a parent’s obligation to pay for a child’s college expenses. Here, the PSA addressed that issue. Thus, the issue before the court was whether Eric was emancipated. If found emancipated, then plaintiff’s obligation to pay child support for Eric and to contribute toward his college expenses would terminate. If not emancipated, then plaintiff’s obligation to contribute toward his support, including college expenses, as agreed upon in the PSA, would continue.
Here, the trial court did not determine whether Eric has reached such an independent status in his life as to be deemed emancipated. Bishop, supra, 287 N.J. Super. at 598. Because we are satisfied the trial judge did not properly decide the issue of emancipation under the correct legal principles, we reverse those parts of the three orders of September 20, 2007 and September 26, 2007, that determined Eric emancipated. We remand the matter to the trial court to reconsider that issue and, if necessary, to conduct a plenary hearing on the matter to resolve the issue of the conflicting certifications of the parties.
Defendant requests on remand that we direct that the matter be considered by a different judge. We decline the invitation. The assignment of the matter to a different trial judge for a “fresh look” is not warranted because the trial judge did not make findings concerning either party’s credibility. Brown v. Brown, 348 N.J. Super. 466, 493 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 174 N.J. 193 (2002); J.L. v. J.F., 317 N.J. Super. 418, 438 (App. Div.), certif. denied, 158 N.J. 685 (1999).
Reversed and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction.
1 Although the order only denies plaintiff’s request to have Raymond emancipated, defendant states in her procedural history that, at that time, plaintiff sought the emancipation of Eric as well.