In New Jersey, child support is generally determined by a calculation based on a state determined formula that takes into consideration a host of factors, such as who is paying for medical insurance, the number of overnights with each parent, etc.
While able to handle a host of arrangements, the guidelines have never been directly applicable in a situation that many parents eventually find themselves in. That is, what should child support be when a child is living way from home while attending college?
Practitioners have typically assumed a reduction of some amount is warranted, given that the child is not at home to incur certain costs- such as food, electricity or hot water use- and the obligor parent theoretically makes a contribution toward these same costs for the period of time the child is in school as part of their contribution toward college expenses. The thought has been that to continue paying at the higher amount, at least for the period of time while the child is in residence at school, would effectively result in a “double dip” to the support-receiving spouse.
The method in determining a reduction has always been a bit ad hoc, differing among practitioners, and involving the actual amounts as well as a feel for what is appropriate in any given case. Neither the case law nor the court rules provided much guidance. That is until now.
In the recent decision of Jacoby v. Jacoby, the appellate division addressed the very situation of the impact a child residing away from home for college may have on child support. More importantly, the court clarified the appropriate analysis to use in such situations.
In the Jacoby case, a father applied for a reduction to his child support obligation, arguing, among other things, that he should receive a reduction to his support because the subject child lived at college for “85 percent of the year.” Addressing this scenario, the appellate court importantly first stressed that a child’s attendance away from home for college essentially functioned as a per se changed circumstance, and thus warranted a review of the support obligation.
The court next found that it was improper for the trial court to rely on the Child Support Guidelines (and that formula’s percentages for fixed, variable and controlled costs) to address a change in support related to a child’s attendance at college and away from home. As the appellate court related, the guidelines themselves state that they are inapplicable when a child is attending college and that courts should instead consider statutes and relevant case law in determining whether continued support would be appropriate.
Instead, trial courts should analyze a student’s needs and abilities, “along with applicable parental financial flexibility or constraints,” so as to assess “all facets of the child support picture.” The court was likewise clear that this was not to say there could never be an instance where such support would be calculated with reference to the guidelines. Rather, such instances should occur rarely, in unusual circumstances. And, when done, should adduce all findings supporting such a determination.
On the actual issue of modification to support, the court noted that child support and college costs differ. It acknowledged that, though a child’s needs may lessen in certain areas- and which may fall within college costs, other needs might actually increase when the child goes to college. The inquiry, it was noted, was highly fact sensitive and review could not “take place in a vacuum.”
In reviewing this issue, then, trial courts are instructed to look to the factors of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23a and assess the income, assets, debts, earning ability, age, and health of each child and parent, to set an appropriate level of support.
While the court’s determination is not revolutionary, the holding is clearly a statement against the generally assumed notion that child support should be reduced upon a child’s attendance at college away from home. After all, it seems almost self-evident that certain expenses that would be incurred in the child’s primary residence will no longer be incurred, or be reduced, once they leave for school. However, some expenses do remain. And, as the Jacoby court noted, some may even increase.
The key to take from the decision, as in so much of family law, is that the inquiry cannot be made in a vacuum. In this regard, as noted earlier, it is highly fact sensitive- this itself is a significant reason why the guidelines were deemed ill-suited for application in these situations.
The take away is that while college seems to grant review of child support as a changed circumstance, the analysis of what a payor spouse will have to contribute is not dependent on some easy to follow formula. It will involve careful consideration of various factors unique to the matter at hand, as well as application of N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23a. In this regard, how this information is consolidated and presented to the court will be important to framing the financial picture for the judge; which, in fact-sensitive inquiries such as this, is almost as important as the facts themselves.