Can I Pay Child Support Directly to My Child?

By Zachary Levy, Esq.
zlevy@pashmanstein.com

When children are involved in a divorce, determining an appropriate child support obligation for the non-custodial parent is a key function of Family Court judges. In cases where child support is necessary, the judge will typically order the non-custodial parent to pay a specific amount each month (or other predetermined amount of time) to the custodial parent to ensure that there are adequate funds available to meet the child’s needs. A recent opinion authored by the Honorable L.R. Jones, J.S.C., however, addressed an interesting alternative approach: if the child is over the age of eighteen, can the non-custodial parent can make child support payments directly to the child rather than to the custodial parent.[1]  It is called child support after all.

In the case of Kayahan v. Kayahan, the defendant/father (the non-custodial parent) requested that the court modify his child support obligation, and permit him to make payments directly to the parties’ daughter, who was over the age of eighteen and attending college at the time, instead of to the plaintiff/mother (the custodial parent). Although the father’s request to make payments directly to the child was ultimately denied in this case, Judge Jones noted that such a payment methodology could be permissible in certain circumstances, and identified three main factors that should be considered when determining if direct parent-to-child support payments should be permitted. The first factor is the child’s maturity and history of responsibility. Otherwise put, can the child be trusted to use the support money for its specific intended purpose? If the court feels that the child does not possess the requisite fiscal responsibility or would be too susceptible to the temptations typically associated with being eighteen years old and being away at college, direct payment to the child should not be permitted.

The second factor is the non-custodial parent’s history of paying timely child support. This factor is important because if the non-custodial parent fails make a support payment to the child, the child is far more likely to succumb to guilt or other pressures not to seek recourse for non-payment than the custodial parent would be. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the court should consider whether there would be sufficient remaining child support funds for the custodial parent to continue reasonably maintaining the child’s primary home without significant economic hardship. In Kayahan, Judge Jones recognized that if the court were to permit a portion of the child support to be paid directly to the child, the remaining portion paid to the mother would not be enough for her to maintain the home and basic budget for the child’s benefit. This, of course, would not be in the best interest of the child, because even though the child was a college student, she was still dependent on her mother for support at this stage in her life.

At the end of the day, Family Court judges have broad discretion to fashion unique remedies based on the specific circumstances of the controversy before them. Although not the norm, direct parent-to-child support payments might be a worthwhile alternative option if appropriate based on the facts and circumstances of the case.

[1] Judge Jones’s opinion can be found here: http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/decisions/kayahan%20%20opinion%20P.pdf

Recent Case Provides for Increased Child Support to Pay Motor Vehicle Insurance Premiums for Newly Licensed Teen Drivers

By Zachary Levy, Esq.
zlevy@pashmanstein.com

Every teenager dreams of the day they are able to get their driver’s license. On the other hand, parents may loath this day. While the cost of purchasing a new vehicle for a new driver can easily be avoided by simply sharing a car with their parents, the same is not true for motor vehicle insurance costs. In New Jersey, the State requires that all drivers carry a minimum level of insurance, and it is a crime to operate a motor vehicle without such insurance coverage. Insurance companies, wary of the new driver’s lack of experience behind the wheel, can charge tremendous premiums, sometimes approaching or exceeding $1,000 per year. Typically, parents subsidize or pay their children’s insurance costs, but the situation becomes a bit more unclear in instances when the child’s parents are divorced and a child support order is in play. More specifically, to what extent must the non-custodial parent, who is already paying guideline-level child support, contribute additional support to cover the cost of insurance for their child who is a newly licensed driver?

In Fichter v. Fichter,[1] the court was faced with a not unusual, but previously unaddressed situation involving this very issue. In that case, the plaintiff and defendant had two children at the time of divorce – one age seventeen and another age thirteen. The seventeen year-old already had his license, and support contributions were already being used to pay for his car insurance premiums. It seemed, however, that neither parent had contemplated that the thirteen year-old would also be getting her license in a few years, and there was no provision in the divorce settlement for this future expense. When the thirteen year-old turned seventeen and obtained her driver’s license; the custodial parent petitioned the court to increase the amount of support the non-custodial parent, who was already paying guide-line level support, needed to contribute in order to cover this new cost.

Interestingly, the State’s Child Support Guidelines (the “Guidelines”) expressly include “all costs involved with owning or leasing an automobile,” including costs related to “insurance,” among the expenses to be considered when crafting a support order. Based on this language, however, it is unclear if future motor vehicle insurance costs for a newly licensed driver would have been included in the award amount, or whether this is something that would warrant a support adjustment once the child obtains their license. Although a literal reading of the Guidelines would suggest that all motor vehicle insurance costs (current and future) would be accounted for in a Guideline support order, the Fichter Court rejected this interpretation, noting it would lead to the nonsensical result of the custodial parent receiving the exact same amount of support both before and after their teenage child obtains a driver’s license, irrespective of the sudden need to insure the driver and the related costs to do so. The court also noted that requiring an increase in support to pay for car insurance is in the best interest of the child, which is always the paramount consideration in child support determinations.

Alternatively, the court also explained that even if one were to interpret the Guidelines as already including future car insurance costs for a newly licensed driver in a support order, the Guidelines themselves also permit the court to deviate from the Guidelines in order to reach an equitable result based on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. Motor vehicle insurance costs are atypical from most other items on a family’s budget in that the law expressly requires it be had. Furthermore, the court touched upon important public safety concerns, noting that car insurance offers protection to members of the public at large who may be in the wrong place at the wrong time and fall victim to the new driver’s lack of experience behind the wheel.

Ultimately, the court required that the non-custodial parent’s support contribution be increased to cover fifty percent of motor vehicle insurance costs for the youngest child. Although foreseeable future expenses should always be considered when crafting a support order, Fichter provides important guidance on an issue that many divorced parents may encounter years later when their young children grow up and obtain their driver’s licenses.

[1] Opinion available at http://www.judiciary.state.nj.us/trial_court_opinions/Fichter-v-Fichter.pdf

Arrested (and released) for Non-Payment of Support

Incarceration
Incarceration

Recently, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ordered the release of a Hunterdon County man who had been jailed for more than eight weeks for falling behind in his alimony and child support payments and for failing to pay arrears. In a 5-2 vote, the high court granted the petitioner’s application for a stay pending the disposition of his appeal to the Appellate Division. While family court judges are generally loathe to incarcerate the supporting spouse for non-payment, as this can in fact cause more financial harm in the form of lost income or even loss of employment itself, the Hunterdon man was ordered to be jailed after he had fallen approximately $60,000 behind in his alimony payments.

There are many reasons a parent or former spouse may fall behind on child or spousal support payments. They may have lost a job or otherwise had a substantial change in income, which has been a common occurrence in the wake of the economic downturn over the last five or so years,  or they may be experiencing medical problems that keep them from working. In some cases, people blatantly choose not to live up to their obligations.

No matter the reason, it is important to recognize that falling behind on support payments is a violation of a court order. Support enforcement actions brought by the other party can lead to serious consequences, including wage garnishment, loss of professional and driver’s licenses, and, as the man in the case above found out, jail time.

In the above case, the incarcerated party contended that the current support obligations were beyond his means. In the context of child support, when either party experiences a substantial change in financial circumstances following a divorce, they each have the right to petition the court to seek modification of support payments. Where a settlement agreement so permits, such changes may also support a request for modification of alimony as well. Generally, the court will hold an “ability to pay hearing” to determine whether in fact support needs to be adjusted. At these hearings, the petitioning spouse can present proofs about their current reduced income, available assets and overall inability to afford support at current levels and the opposing party has the opportunity to challenge those proofs.

While unemployment is generally viewed as a temporary status, and thus has not customarily been deemed a significant changed circumstance supporting modification, for payor spouses who have lost their jobs – or who have endured a significant drop in income – it is critical that they take affirmative steps legally and not simply ignore their obligations. As the man in Hunterdon County found out, you might find yourself spending significant time in jail.

Jacoby Vs. Jacoby – Determining Child Support When a Child Goes to College

Child Support
Child Support

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.