New Jersey Supreme Court Declines to Clarify Legal Definition of Parental Abandonment
In light of an ongoing case involving the tragic death of a 15-year-old boy, the New Jersey Supreme Court has decided not to hear a case that questions whether or not the boy’s father, who was long absent from his life before his untimely death, should be entitled to a portion of the damages awarded in his wrongful death lawsuit.
The parties embroiled in this case are the parents of Michael Fisher II, who died on September 24, 2010, at age 15, while playing roller hockey. Michael was diagnosed with a congenital heart murmur, but was approved to play hockey by a cardiologist just three weeks before his death. His mother ultimately pursued a wrongful death claim against the doctor and was awarded an undisclosed sum. The damages from the wrongful death lawsuit are now a part of Michael’s estate, from which his father is seeking an allocation. The question in this case revolves around the issue of parental abandonment, specifically, whether or not Fisher effectively abandoned his son, and if so, whether or not he should have access to a portion of his son’s estate.
Michael Fisher and Justina Nees were first married in 1994. The separated in 2001 and in May of that year, Nees obtained a final restraining order against Fisher after he attempted to remove his son from school with permission. Per the ruling in the domestic violence case, Fisher was restricted to supervised visitation with his son, required to undergo domestic violence counseling, and subject to a risk assessment. He did not comply with these requirements, at which time his visitation rights were entirely suspended.
In 2002, when the divorce was finalized, Fisher was denied visitation until he completed anger management counseling and the mandatory risk assessment. He was also required to provide $85 per week in child support payments, which were subsequently increased to $105 per week. Nees offered Fisher the ability to avoid child support payments if he relinquished his parental rights, but he refused. Fisher ultimately moved to Florida and failed to provide child support, accumulating arrears amounting to $10,000.
What the Courts Say
The first ruling in this case came out of Cape May County in September 2014, when Superior Court Judge Christopher Gibson ruled that Fisher should not receive any of the money from his son’s estate, as he had effectively abandoned him. Judge Gibson stated that although Fisher did not technically forgo his parental rights, “The absence of his presence from the remainder of his son’s regrettably short life was not accidental or involuntary.”
When the case was taken up on appeal, a three-judge Appellate Division panel overturned the previous ruling, stating that the evidence did not support the contention that Fisher “abandoned” or “willfully forsaken” his son, regardless of their nearly nonexistent contact for the nine years leading up to young Michael’s death. The Appellate panel cited Fisher’s rejection of Nees’ offer regarding his parental rights, as well as his payment of child support which totaled $37,000. Their published opinion reads as follows:
“We hold that, in order for a court to conclude that a parent has ‘abandoned’ his or her child ‘by willfully forsaking him or her’ … the court must find that the parent, through his or her unambiguous and intentional conduct, has clearly manifested a settled purpose to permanently forego all parental duties and relinquish all parental claims to the child.”
As for the New Jersey Supreme Court, it has declined to hear this case in order to clarify the definition of parental abandonment in the eyes of the law. Ultimately, this case sheds light on the often ambiguous nature of matters involving child custody, child support, and parental rights and responsibilities in New Jersey. These issues are hardly cut-and-dry, with significant variation among cases and a vast array of questions that are subject to interpretation. This reality underscores the invariable need for a knowledgeable and experienced New Jersey family law attorney on your side when confronting these issues. If you have questions, contact the Morris County law offices of Townsend, Tomaio & Newmark, L.L.C. at 973-828-0829 for a cost-free consultation.
For additional information pertaining to this case, access the following article: Justices Won’t Weigh in on Definition of Parental Abandonment