A Warning to Parents Litigating College Expenses in the Family CourtFebruary 24, 2017

In a recent decision, Ricci v. Ricci, the Appellate Division addressed emancipation and parents’ obligation to pay college costs for a child who has left the parent’s home. This case is unique in that it involved divorced parents who agreed their daughter, Caitlyn, should be emancipated. Caitlyn disagreed and legally intervened, causing years of litigation which – according to the Appellate Division – has only just begun.

There was no dispute that Caitlyn had disciplinary problems which began in high school.  These issues, which continued after Caitlyn graduated in 2012, caused significant family strife.  In February 2013, at the age of nineteen (19), Caitlyn moved from her mother’s home to reside with her grandparents.  Based on Caitlyn’s conduct and what the Ricci parents perceived to be an obvious desire to be independent of their control, Caitlyn’s parents agreed it was no longer necessary or appropriate to continue supporting their daughter financially.  The parents signed a Consent Order emancipating Caitlyn and stopping child support.

Legal action followed, and Caitlyn asked the Court to vacate the Consent Order and require her parents to provide financial support for college. The parents objected, but two Orders were subsequently entered against them “un-emancipating” Caitlyn and requiring them to contribute towards her college tuition.  The Ricci parents appealed.

The Appellate Division’s decision outlined the law governing emancipation and college contribution in New Jersey, and found that neither issue was properly considered.  The Court first advised there should have been an examination of the events triggering Caitlyn’s departure from her mother’s home in 2013 and her subsequent emancipation.  Following existing law, the Court advised: when determining if a child should be emancipated, judges must focus on whether that child has moved beyond the influence of his or her parents and obtained total independence from them.

Second, the Court could not uphold the conclusion that Caitlyn had been un-emancipated, since the trial court did not make the required findings or hold a plenary hearing (essentially a shortened trial) on the issue. Because there was no requisite finding of un-emancipation, the Order requiring the Riccis to pay for Caitlyn’s college expenses was also improper and had to be vacated.   In remanding the matter back to the trial court for a hearing, the Court underscored that the threshold question of emancipation is fact-sensitive and must precede any consideration of a parent’s obligation to contribute towards the cost of college. In other words, Caitlyn will first have to prove she was un-emancipated before the trial court can conduct an analysis about whether her parents should be required to contribute towards her college expenses.

The Appellate Division got it right in the Ricci case; i.e., the Court identified a series of procedural mistakes and ultimately remanded the case to the trial court for the proper proceedings. That’s because under New Jersey law, any time there is a significant factual dispute between the parties (which almost always occurs in Family Court matters), a plenary hearing is required. But there is some truth to the legal maxim “justice delayed is justice denied”, and plenary hearings often take months or even years to complete. Therein lies the issue. By affording the Riccis their “day in court”, the Appellate Division effectively ensured this litigation won’t be ending soon. Practically speaking, the Riccis could be sharing the cost of Caitlyn’s wedding before they resolve college costs.

Despite its holding, the Appellate Division acknowledged the trial court judges in this case made the best equitable decisions based on what was before them. They did so without requiring a plenary hearing – recognizing the limited resources of the parties and the court. This type of “swift justice” is something practitioners demand on a regular basis. However, judges will often avoid this because it’s technically contrary to applicable law and leaves most litigants feeling unsatisfied. The bottom line: litigation in Family Court is often a “no-win” for both parents and children. Although easier said than done, a family feud is best resolved without involving the courts and it’s worth exploring mediation or other forms of dispute resolution.

Related Practice: Family Law

Attorneys: Kelley Rutkowski and Mia Stollen

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