Whether a Child is Emancipated Requires Full Legal Analysis, and Findings and Conclusions

Ricci v. Ricci, 448 N.J. Super. 546 (App. Div. 2017).  As Judge Lihotz observed in the opening sentence of her opinion for the Appellate Division in this case, Newburgh v. Arrigo, 88 N.J. 529 (1982), established the principle that “the privilege of parenthood carries with it the duty to assure a necessary education for children.”  That duty applies, however, only to children who are not emancipated.  “A determination of emancipation is a legal issue, imposed when the fundamental dependent relationship between parent and child ends.”  That determination is fact-sensitive, and requires findings and conclusions.

This case involved the claim of the parties’ daughter, Caitlyn, that her parents (plaintiff and defendant) were obligated to pay for her education at Temple University.  The parents had agreed that Caitlyn had been emancipated.  The Family Part allowed Caitlyn to intervene in this matrimonial matter to assert her right to support, a demand that both parents opposed.  The Family Part ruled that Caitlyn had not been emancipated.

On appeal, the Appellate Division reversed.  After recounting a detailed procedural history, in the course of which the parents had agreed to pay for Caitlyn to attend Gloucester County Community College but had not committed to pay for a more expensive university education (Caitlyn had not shown herself to be mature enough to live away from home), Judge Lihotz discussed emancipation at length, and ultimately resolved the appeal based on the Family Part’s failure to fully analyze the issue of whether Caitlyn had been emancipated, or provide adequate findings and conclusions, as required by Rule 1:7-4.  The applicable standards of review called for deference to well-supported factual findings by the Family Part, but no deference to legal conclusions.  On that basis, the Family Part’s ruling regarding payment for Caitlyn to attend university was reversed.

On the issue of emancipation alone, Judge Lihotz’s lengthy and detailed opinion is well worth reading for those who are involved in family matters.  But the decision also addressed other issues.

First,the panel dealt with Caitlyn’s argument that her parents’ appeal was untimely.  Judge Lihotz found that there was no final judgment from which the parties could have appealed until less than 45 days before the date that the appeal was filed.  Accordingly, the appeal was timely.

Next, Judge Lihotz turned to the parties’ challenge to Caitlyn’s right to intervene in the matter.  The Family Part had allowed that, and Judge Lihotz affirmed that ruling.  Caitlyn had standing to intervene because she had “an interest in advancing the position she is unemancipated and in need of her parents’ support.”

Caitlyn’s mother asserted, for the first time on appeal, that reversal was required because “the Family Part has interfered with her constitutional right to raise her daughter.”  Judge Lihotz discussed that contention at length, but it did not succeed.  The law does protect parenting rights, but the law also protects a child’s right to support, including necessary education, if the child is unemancipated.

Judge Lihotz concluded by giving the parties and the Family Part important guidance as to how to proceed to address the issue of emancipation.  Her final paragraph, however, was “observational,” rightly noting that litigation is expensive and emotionally draining, as well as time-consuming.  She recommended that the parties consider alternative dispute resolution to try to bring this unfortunate matter to a consensual end.