Thomasv.Thomas

SUPERIOR COURT OF NEW JERSEY APPELLATE DIVISIONAug 13, 2015
DOCKET NO. A-5905-13T3 (N.J. Super. App. Div. Aug. 13, 2015)

DOCKET NO. A-5905-13T3

08-13-2015

NANCY THOMAS, Plaintiff-Respondent, v. EDWIN THOMAS, Defendant-Appellant.

Law offices of Schroll and Bowman, attorneys for appellant (Bryan C. Schroll, on the brief). Respondent has not filed a brief.


NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION Before Judges Kennedy and Hoffman. On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County, Docket No. FD-04-2249-00. Law offices of Schroll and Bowman, attorneys for appellant (Bryan C. Schroll, on the brief). Respondent has not filed a brief. PER CURIAM

Defendant Edwin Thomas appeals from an August 6, 2014 Family Part order denying his motion seeking emancipation of his son, or in the alternative, the reduction of his child support obligation from $159 to zero. The motion court denied emancipation but reduced defendant's child support obligation to $100. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I.

We discern the following facts from the motion record. Plaintiff and defendant are the parents of a son born in July 1995. When the son graduated from high school in May 2014, a court order required defendant to pay child support of $159 per week. At that time, defendant had not seen his son in two years and was not consulted as to the son's college selection.

The son was accepted as a cadet at the University of North Georgia (the "University"). He was awarded the Georgia Military Scholarship, which pays for "room, meals, tuition, fees, uniforms, and provides a textbook allowance of $1000 per year." As a condition of the scholarship, the son was obligated to enlist in the Georgia Army National Guard (the "Guard"), which pays him an income while attending school. After graduating from the University, the son must serve at least four additional years in the Guard.

The scholarship does not cover approximately $750 of one-time costs associated with attending the University; however, $250 of that sum is reimbursed upon graduation. The record before us does not indicate any other out-of-pocket expenses, nor the actual income the son will receive during the school year.

On July 3, 2014, a hearing officer denied defendant's application to emancipate his son. Defendant then filed the motion under review. The court heard the matter on August 6, 2014. The record is unclear if plaintiff filed any written opposition to the motion, but the transcript of the hearing indicates that while plaintiff was available by phone, the judge declined to hear from her. The court denied the application for emancipation but reduced defendant's child support payment from $159 per week to $100 per week, stating, "I come to that [$]100 figure based upon what I think are somewhat minimum expenses." From the record before us, it appears that the court did not have any information regarding the son's living expenses or income, except for a letter detailing the scholarship.

This appeal followed. Defendant argues that the motion court erred by not granting his emancipation motion based upon his son's acceptance of the Georgia Military Scholarship and enlistment in the Guard. In the alternative, defendant argues that the court erred in only reducing his weekly child support from $159 to $100.

II.

Clear standards guide our limited review. We "do not disturb the factual findings . . . 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) (citation and internal quotations omitted). Family court fact-finding warrants heightened deference because family courts have "special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters[.]" Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 413 (1998). However, we confer no deference to a trial court's interpretation of the law, which we review de novo. Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm. of Manalapan, 140 N.J. 366, 378, (1995).

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. Nevertheless, "in appropriate circumstances, the privilege of parenthood carries with it the duty to assure a necessary education for children." Ibid.

Emancipation is 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. Div. 1997) (citation and internal quotations omitted).

Based on the record before us, we conclude the motion judge correctly determined the son's acceptance of the Georgia Military Scholarship and enlistment in the Guard was not equivalent to a full-time armed services commitment. See Bishop v. Bishop, 287 N.J. Super. 593, 604 (Ch. Div. 1995) (finding a person on active duty with the military and enrolled in a service academy is emancipated from his or her parents for purposes of child support and college expenses).

We note that, at the time this motion was heard, defendant's son had only recently graduated from high school and was just beginning his studies at the University. The record supports the conclusion that the son remained within the sphere of influence and responsibility exercised by his parents and had not yet obtained an independent status of his own. Filippone, supra, 304 N.J. Super. at 308. We further note that the motion judge entered his determination without prejudice to defendant's right to file a motion accompanied by additional proof of his son's emancipation.

III.

"The trial court has 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." Foust v. Glaser, 340 N.J. Super. 312, 315-16 (App. Div. 2001) (citations and internal quotations omitted).

Child support obligations may be modified upon a showing of changed circumstances. N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23; Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 157, (1980). In such cases, Rule 5:5-4(a) requires that a motion for modification

shall have appended to it a copy of the prior case information statement or statements filed before entry of the order or judgment sought to be modified and a copy of a current case information statement. . . . If the party seeking the . . . child support relief has demonstrated a prima facie showing of a substantial change of circumstances, then the court will order the other party to file a copy of a current case information statement.

However, "[a]n opponent of a Lepis motion is not required to provide a case information statement or disclose financial information until such time as the movant demonstrates a change in circumstances." Donnelly v. Donnelly, 405 N.J. Super. 117, 131, (App. Div. 2009).

The "complete financial information of both parents [is] necessary for any order of child support." Zazzo v. Zazzo, 245 N.J. Super. 124, 129 (App. Div. 1990) certif. denied, 126 N.J. 321 (1991). We have further explained that "[t]his mandate is not just window dressing"; rather, it provides the motion judge with "a complete picture of the finances of the movants in a modification case." Gulya v. Gulya, 251 N.J. Super. 250, 253 (App. Div. 1991).

We reject defendant's argument that his child support obligation should have been reduced to zero. The Georgia Military Scholarship effectively relieves defendant of the obligation of contributing to the cost of his son's college education; however, the non-payment of college expenses does not preclude or create a presumption against payment of support to a dependent college student. See Bishop, supra, 287 N.J. Super. at 598.

After correctly declining to reduce defendant's child support obligation to zero, the motion judge should have then required submission of current case information statements. Instead, he proceeded to reduce defendant's child support obligation to $100 per week, with only a limited explanation unsupported by the record.

The court made this reduction in defendant's child support obligation without requiring submission of current case information statements. R. 5:5-4(a). Without these statements, the court did not have the parties' full mutual financial picture nor any basis for properly determining defendant's reduced child support obligation.

Given the lack of information to support findings regarding the financial circumstances of the parties, or many of the other factors required to be considered by the court, see N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23a, we reverse and remand for reconsideration of defendant's revised child support award. On remand, the judge shall allow the parties to present updated information regarding their incomes and the expenses and income of their son, and then consider the N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23a factors to fashion an appropriate award.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. We do not retain jurisdiction. I hereby certify that the foregoing is a true copy of the original on file in my office.

CLERK OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION