Order Requiring Parents to Pay College Expenses Vacated

Order Requiring Parents to Pay College Expenses Vacated

The Superior Court of New Jersey, Appellate Division recently decided a case involving a mother’s challenge to a family court order mandating that she and her former husband contribute to the college tuition expenses of their daughter, who had intervened in the parents’ divorce action.

Plaintiff Maura McGarvey appealed from several Family Part orders mandating she and defendant Michael Ricci, plaintiff's former husband, contribute to the college tuition expenses of intervenor, their 23-year-old daughter, Caitlyn Ricci. Plaintiff and defendant agreed Caitlyn was emancipated when she left her mother's home to reside with her grandparents at 19 years of age. A March 30, 2013 order of emancipation had been entered.  Plaintiff and defendant filed a consent order terminating child support. Thereafter, Caitlyn moved to intervene in the matrimonial matter, seeking to vacate the emancipation order and require her parents to provide funds allowing her to attend college. In the October 11, 2013 order, the judge permitted Caitlyn to intervene and required plaintiff and defendant to pay the tuition cost for Gloucester County Community College, which was less than $2,000.

Prior to completing her associate's degree at the community college, Caitlyn transferred to Temple University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She moved the family court for  plaintiff and defendant to pay annual tuition for the university, which, even after financial aid was awarded, was significantly more than the tuition at the community college. On October 31, 2014, a newly assigned judge considered Caitlyn's motion. He concluded the issue was adjudicated and governed by the prior October 11, 2013 order. Accordingly, without benefit of a plenary hearing or review of financial documentation, the newly assigned judge "enforced" the October 11 order and required plaintiff and defendant satisfy the university's outstanding tuition, fees, and the cost of books.

The Appellate Division found the record was void of the basis establishing Caitlyn was unemancipated at the time of the October 11, 2013 review. The court held that emancipation is a legal determination, which must be resolved prior to awarding support, including payment of college costs. Because that analysis was absent, the court vacated the provisions of the challenged order addressed to emancipation and payment of support.

The Appellate Division’s decision noted that Caitlyn’s paternal grandparents were funding her legal battle against her parents.  Further, the court noted that the parties’ respective characterizations of the parent-child relationship vastly differed.  Caitlyn briefly mentioned the family dynamics, stating, "substantial personal problems . . . necessitated that I move out of my mother's home . . . . I did not fit in well with her new family." She also stated "I . . . had substantial problems with my father's new family[,] and thus he was not an option."  Caitlyn asserted that she initiated litigation only after plaintiff and defendant separately informed her they would not pay her community college costs because she was not residing with either of them.

Plaintiff and defendant's pleadings cast a different light on the parent-child relationship. Both parents expressed their love for Caitlyn and a willingness to address issues as a family; however, plaintiff and defendant separately opposed Caitlyn's motion based on her conduct and choices. Their certifications detailed the difficulties experienced with Caitlyn's dangerous decisions and disobedience, which started while she was in high school. Caitlyn's conduct included smoking marijuana while driving, engaging in underage drinking and sexual activity, participating in explicit sexual conversations on the internet, and attempting to hurt herself.

Plaintiff explained she attempted to counsel her daughter, who nevertheless did not obey her requests, expressed dislike for imposed rules, and chose to leave her home. Plaintiff asserted Caitlyn willingly, knowingly, and voluntarily left and went out on her own.

Defendant also cited Caitlyn's trouble with alcohol, drugs, and impulsive behavior, as well as her acts of opposition to plaintiff's imposition of discipline, including a curfew and the obligation to perform household chores. Defendant related his efforts to discuss those concerns with Caitlyn, which she repeatedly rebuffed. He stated Caitlyn refused to answer her parents' texts or calls prior to filing her motion and that Caitlyn had not spoken to either parent for six months.

The Appellate Division acknowledged that a court's authority to impose support obligations is circumscribed: it terminates with a child's emancipation.  In turn, a determination of emancipation is a legal issue, imposed when the fundamental dependent relationship between parent and child ends. The court further expounded:  Deciding whether a child is emancipated requires a fact-sensitive analysis. The 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. A court's emancipation determination involves 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.

The court noted that whether Caitlyn's actions were irresponsible, as plaintiff and defendant suggested, or youthful, as Caitlyn insisted, begged the question. What was required was an examination of events that triggered Caitlyn's departure from her mother's home and the resultant March 30, 2013 order of emancipation. The fact that Caitlyn is not living with either parent was significant. The Appellate Division held that how that event occurred bore heavily on whether Caitlyn exercised an independent status of her own and became emancipated.

The case is currently on remand to the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Camden County (New Jersey).  Stay connected with the Lexis-Nexis Legal Newsroom to find out what the family court determines for this family.

Lexis subscribers can access the opinion at: Ricci v. Ricci, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 17 (App.Div. Feb. 9, 2017)

Lexis Advance subscribers can find the opinion at: Ricci v. Ricci, 2017 N.J. Super. LEXIS 17 (App.Div. Feb. 9, 2017)

Author:  Gabriela N. Nolen, Lexis-Nexis Case Law Editor


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