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Emancipation Standard in PSA Is Not Dispositive

By Snyder Sarno D'Aniello Maceri & da Costa LLC on April 28, 2017

The daughter graduated from high school in June 2010 and began community college in September 2010.  After 4 years, the daughter graduated from community college with an associate’s degree in May 2014.  The month after her graduation, the husband sought to emancipate the daughter and to terminate his child support obligation based on the terms of the PSA.  The wife opposed the motion on the grounds that the daughter was enrolled at Montclair State University for the Fall 2014 semester.  The wife argued that the PSA was not controlling for purposes of the daughter’s emancipation, and contended that the court should conduct a plenary hearing and use the common law standard to decide whether the daughter was emancipated.

After oral argument, the Family Part judge granted the husband’s motion and emancipated the daughter on July 25, 2014.  The judge found that the daughter was emancipated under the terms of the PSA by taking 4 years to complete a degree that traditionally requires 2 years.  The judge further determined that the daughter was not pursuing her undergraduate degree with “adequate diligence” because she would need at least 2 more years to earn a bachelor’s degree.  The wife filed a motion for reconsideration and, in support, submitted a certification setting forth the daughter’s employment and financial circumstances and her living situation.  On October 1, 2014, the Family Part judge denied the wife’s motion.  The judge reiterated that he was constricted by the PSA, which was clear on its face and controlling.  The judge did not find any mistakes of law or fact in the earlier order and did not see any reason to consider the new evidence the wife presented.  The wife appealed the July 25 and October 1 orders.

On appeal, the wife primarily challenged the Family Part judge’s conclusion that the daughter was emancipated, which resultantly terminated the husband’s support obligation for her.  The Appellate Division explained that emancipation does automatically occur when the dependent child turns 18.  Instead, the court must conduct a fact-sensitive inquiry to determine whether the child had moved beyond the parents’ sphere of influence and obtained an independent status.  This involves an examination of “the child’s need, interests, and independent resources, the family’s reasonable expectations, and the [parents’] financial ability, among other things.”  The court must also consider whether there is an agreement by which the parents voluntarily extended their duty to support the child beyond age 18.  When parents enter into such an agreement, their parental obligation is assessed under contractual and equitable principles.

The Appellate Division noted that the PSA extended the support obligation for the daughter beyond the age at which she was presumptively emancipated.  Moreover, neither the husband nor the wife disputed that the agreement was entered into voluntarily, knowingly, and consensually, or that it was fair and equitable.  As a result, the PSA was binding.  However, the Appellate Division further observed that the husband was not seeking relief from his obligations under the PSA, but only a declaration that the daughter was emancipated in accordance with its terms.  Pursuant to those terms, the Appellate Division agreed with the motion judge that the daughter attended college for 4 consecutive academic years and, consequently, that the husband had established that she met the conditions for emancipation under the PSA’s agreed upon terms.  However, the Appellate Division disagreed that the conditions for emancipation in the PSA were dispositive on the issue of the daughter’s emancipation because the right to support belonged to the daughter—not to the wife, who was her custodial parent.  As a result, if child support was warranted after the PSA’s anticipated emancipation date, neither the husband nor the wife had the authority to contract away that entitlement.

As the PSA was not dispositive, the Appellate Division explained that the court needed to consider whether the daughter was emancipated independent of the PSA’s conditions.  The husband demonstrated that the daughter was 23, and thus made a prima facie showing that she was emancipated.  The wife then had the burden of rebutting the presumption of emancipation with evidence “that a dependent relationship with the parents continues because of the needs of the child.”  However, the wife opposed the husband’s motion solely on the basis that the daughter was enrolled at Montclair, and presented no other evidence that the 23-year-old daughter was not emancipated after 4 years at community college.  However, the daughter’s future enrollment was insufficient on its own to rebut the presumption of the daughter’s emancipation.  The Appellate Division pointed out that the wife presented no evidence that the daughter was dependent upon her parents, or that the daughter had not yet moved beyond the parental sphere of influence and obtained a status of her own.  The wife simply failed to submit adequate evidence upon which the motion judge could logically conclude that the daughter was not emancipated, or which created a material issue of fact that required a full hearing.  Accordingly, a plenary hearing was unnecessary, and the Family Part judge’s order emancipating the daughter was proper.

The wife also argued that the judge erred in denying her motion for reconsideration.  The Appellate Division disagreed, explaining that reconsideration must be based on the evidence before the court on the initial motion.  A motion for reconsideration cannot be used to introduce additional evidence and essentially reargue a motion.  If the interests of justice require, a court may consider new evidence if it was unavailable when the motion was originally argued.  The Appellate Division found that the wife did not make such a showing in this case.  The Appellate Division thus affirmed both of the Family Part orders.

If you have an issue with child support or emancipation, contact the skilled matrimonial attorneys at Snyder Sarno D’Aniello Maceri & da Costa LLCCall us today at (973) 274-5200.

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