The New Jersey state appeals court issued a ruling last month that divorced parents must be in agreement in decisions regarding their children’s schooling, after a New Jersey woman’s decision to enroll her daughter in private school led to a court battle. Family lawyers in New Jersey say that the ruling made in Phillips v. Emerson, A-0737-12, will compel divorced families to work together to provide the best educational environments for their children, in a move that strives to keep the focus on what is best for the child.
Suzanne Phillips and Laurence Emerson, both from New Jersey, were divorced in 2002. The couple had four children together, and in the divorce, Phillips was named the primary residential parent, with Emerson as the parent of alternate residence. Phillips was raised in a Christian family, and Emerson in a Jewish household, but neither partner actively practiced their faiths during their marriage, nor did they actively involve their children in either religion. At the time of their divorce, all four of their children were enrolled in public schools.
When Phillips remarried, she and her new husband began to bring her children to a Catholic Church. In August 2012, Phillips enrolled the youngest, their 15-year-old daughter, in a Catholic high school. Emerson claimed that he had no say in, or even knowledge of, the decision regarding his only daughter’s schooling, and opposed his ex-wife’s choice. Emerson claimed that the Catholic school was an attempt to convert all four children to the Catholic faith, isolating them from their Jewish father.
Emerson received an email from his daughter about her change of schools, in which the girl told her father that she had endured teasing and bullying at her public school, and had decided to change schools in order to start over. She also told her father that she had come to the decision on her own, and believed that private school would offer her the environment she needed. Emerson responded that he “was not in favor of faith-based schools,” and filed an appeal after a judge allowed the enrollment to go forward based on the email exchange.
The appeals court pointed to the parties’ divorce agreement, in which both parents were granted custody of their children. Under the agreement, Phillips and Emerson are required to discuss any decisions regarding their children’s well-being, education, and lifestyle before going forward. The judges cited previous New Jersey legislation that labeled schooling as a major decision, not to be made by one parent alone. The courts ruled that Emerson and Phillips had a duty to attend a plenary hearing to discuss their daughter’s needs, and determine together whether private Catholic school was in her best interests. New Jersey family lawyers say that without a mutual decision, or a court ruling, Phillips had no legal standing to enroll her daughter in the private school.
At New Jersey law firm Helmer, Conley, and Kasselman, P.A., our experienced family attorneys represent divorced families who must make major life decisions, such as education, location, and the well-being of their children.