Child Support Guidelines and Special Circumstances
NJ Child Support Guidelines
The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines (“Guidelines”) recognize that both parents have a duty to provide for their children, and that the child should not be financially disadvantaged due to the divorce and separation of the parents. The formula under the Guidelines was developed by economists at the request of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, to provide uniformity and fairness in child support awards throughout the State of New Jersey.
Rule 5:6A states pertinently:
“The guidelines set forth in Appendix IX of these Rules shall be applied when an application to establish or modify child support is considered by the court. The guidelines may be modified or disregarded by the court only where good cause is shown. Good cause shall consist of a) the considerations set forth in Appendix IX-A, or the presence of other relevant factors which may make the guidelines inapplicable or subject to modification, and b) the fact that an injustice would result from the application of the guidelines. In all cases, the determination of good cause shall be within the sound discretion of the court.
A completed child support guidelines worksheet in the form prescribed in Appendix IX of these Rules shall be filed with any order or judgment that includes child support that is submitted for the approval of the court. If a proposed child support award differs from the award calculated under the child support guidelines, the worksheet shall state the reason for the deviation and the amount of the award calculated under the child support guidelines.”
The Guidelines attempt to replicate the support a child would receive in a nuclear family with parents of similar earning ability.
Courts Default to the Amounts Calculated Under the Guidelines
The Court must apply the Guidelines, which form a “rebuttable presumption” as to the correct child support figures. “Rebuttable presumption” is a legal way of saying that the figures computed under the Guidelines are a “default.” By default, you get the Guideline figures. But, there is an opportunity to argue for other amounts by showing “good cause.” Again, “good cause” is a legal way of saying that the Court will deviate from the Guidelines for “legitimate reasons.”
Factors Considered in Deviating from Guidelines
Paragraph three of Appendix IX-A of the Guidelines authorizes a court to either disregard or adjust the guideline-based award to meet the needs of the child or parents’ circumstances if the “the Guidelines are inappropriate in a specific case.” Appendix IX-A Paragraph 21 further provides a list of factors that may, at the court’s discretion, require deviation from the guideline-based award. Whether these or other factors are used, the court’s decision to adjust an award should be based on a ‘best interests’ standard. Paragraph 21 provides the following list of factors that the court may apply but notes that other factors may be used at the court’s discretion.
(a) equitable distribution of property;
(b) income taxes;
(c) fixed direct payments (e.g., mortgage payments);
(d) unreimbursed medical/dental expenses for either parent;
(e) educational expenses for children (i.e., private, parochial, or trade schools, or other secondary schools, or post-secondary education);
(f) educational expenses for either parent to improve earning capacity;
(g) single family units (i.e., one household) having more than six children;
(h) cases involving the voluntary placement of children in foster care;
(i) special needs of gifted or disabled children;
(j) ages of children;
(k) hidden costs of caring for children such as reduced income, decreased career opportunities, loss of time to shop economically, or loss of savings;
(l) extraordinarily high income of a child (e.g., actors, trusts);
(m) substantiated financial obligations for elder care that existed before the filing of the support claim;
(n) the tax advantages of paying for a child’s health insurance; and
(o) one obligor owing support to more than one family (e.g., multiple prior support orders).
High Income Families and Extracurricular Activities
In Accardi v. Accardi, 369 N.J. Super. 75 (App. Div. 2004), the Court addressed the inclusion of extracurricular activities in the child support award. Mr. Accardi ended up paying 14.6% more than the award would have been under the Guidelines. Id. Mrs. Accardi argued that expenses such as gymnastics, tennis lessons, horseback riding lessons, drum lessons and cheerleading were allowable under the Guidelines. Id. Mr. Accardi criticized the Trial Judge on appeal, because 100% of these extraordinary expenses were apportioned to him, rather than being apportioned ratably between the parties. Id. The Appellate Division reversed on how the expenses should be characterized – whether as entertainment or extraordinary expenses – a technical issue, to be sure, but one that would perhaps be determinative under the Guidelines of whether the expenses should be apportioned between the parties or borne solely by Mr. Accardi. Id.
The basic child support award under the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines includes expenses for housing, food, clothing, transportation,entertainment, unreimbursed health care up to and including $250.00 per child per year, and miscellaneous items. Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A at 2585 (2014) (emphasis added). Entertainment expenses are defined as fees, memberships and admissions to sports, recreational or social events, lessons or instructions, movie rentals, televisions, mobile devices, sound equipment, pets, hobbies, toys, playground equipment, photographic equipment, film processing, video games, and recreational, exercise or sports equipment. Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A at 2586 (2014). Certainly, gymnastics, tennis, horseback riding, and cheerleading would be sports/recreation, and drum lessons would qualify under “lessons or instruction” such that these expenses should have been categorized in Accardi as “Entertainment expenses.” Under the Guidelines, these expenses are the type that must be “apportioned” based on the relative incomes of the parties.
The Appendix to the New Jersey Court Rules provides that “because some child-related expenses represent large or variable expenditures . . . it is not appropriate to include them in basic child support awards.” Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A at 2586 (2014).
What does all of this mean? In Accardi, the Court ruled that if these extraordinary expenses are regular and recurring, they should be shared between the parents in proportion to their relative incomes, and directed the Trial Court to review the matter with that admonition in mind.
The Three Pony Rule – No Child No Matter How Rich Needs More than Three Ponies
In Issacson v. Issacson, 348 N.J. Super. 560 (App. Div. 2002), the Appellate Division noted that these items may be added to the child support award, but should only be added if they are regular, predictable and recurring. If a child is currently involved in an activity, it is something that should be continued and funded, provided the expenses for participation can be reasonably calculated, but parents should not make allowance for items that are irregular or difficult to calculate, or that are excessively overindulgent, and should instead address irregular issues (like a trip to Disney World) as those issues arise. Issacson analyzed whether the expenses were appropriate based on considerations of need, reasonableness and the best interests of the child. The Court observed that just because a parent drives a luxury vehicle like a Mercedes, does not mean that the driving age child also needs to drive a luxury vehicle, as such a result does not necessarily comport with the child’s reasonable needs and with the child’s best interests. Id. The Court referred to a tongue-in-cheek “rule” from an older case, in which the Kansas Appellate Courts poked some fun at the idea that providing for a child’s needs does not mean spoiling them, citing to the “Three Pony Rule” of In re Patterson, 22 Kan. App. 2d 522 (1996), for the proposition: “That is, no child, no matter how wealthy the parents, needs to be provided more than three ponies."
Incidental Benefit to the Custodial Parent is Permissible, Within Bounds
As we noted in Walton:
In short, we see no reason why, because of their mother's impecuniousness, these children of a very successful father should be required to live in a house which is in a state of disrepair, be transported in an old or unreliable vehicle or go without a necessary new furnace. Their father's income entitles them to better, and the fact that their mother may benefit incidentally from the component for which the father pays is of no moment.
[248 N.J. Super. at 650 (citing Zazzo, supra, 245 N.J. Super. at 131).]
Benefiting from the Parent’s Good Fortune
A central tenant of divorce law in New Jersey is that children should be entitled to the advantages of similarly situated children born into families with similar resources, but as noted in Issacson, there are limits. The Courts freely recognize that children are entitled to be supported in a manner reflecting their parents’ standard of living and that this results in greater opportunities for children from high income families. Zazzo v. Zazzo, 245 N.J. Super. 124 (App. Div. 1990). “In high income families, ‘the children are entitled to the benefit of financial advantages available to them.’” Crist v. Crist, WL 2744284 at 4 (App. Div. 2008) citing Accardi v. Accardi, 369 N.J. Super. 75, 88 (App. Div. 2004). When claiming that a non-custodial parent should contribute towards certain extraordinary expenses, “the moving party bears the burden of proof to demonstrate that the expenses are both legitimate and reasonable.” Crist, Supra, at 4 citing Accardi,Supra, 369 N.J. Super. at 87. The Appellate Courts have generally recognized that where the parties have the financial wherewithal to provide for their children, the children are entitled to the benefit of financial advantages available to them. The Courts have characterized such circumstances as reflecting a parent's "good fortune" and have held that children are entitled to have their needs accord with the current standard of living of both parents, which may reflect an increase in parental good fortune. See Connell v. Connell, 313 N.J. Super. 426, 430 (App.Div. 1998); Italiano v. Rudkin (Italiano), 294 N.J. Super. 502, 506, (App. Div. 1996); Koelble v. Koelble, 261 N.J. Super. 190, 193 (App.Div. 1992); Walton v. Visgil, 248 N.J. Super. 642, 649 (App.Div.1991); Zazzo v. Zazzo, 245 N.J. Super. 124, 130 (App. Div. 1990), certif. denied, 126 N.J. 321 (1991). Children are entitled to not only bare necessities, but a supporting parent has the obligation to share with his children the benefit of his financial achievement. See Dunne v. Dunne, 209 N.J. Super. 559, 567 (App. Div. 1986).