Can I Pay Less Child Support While I Go Back To School To Earn A Degree?

By Robert B. Kornitzer, Esq. and  Zachary Levy, Esq.
rkornitzer@pashmanstein.com and zlevy@pashmanstein.com

Child support obligations are not set in stone, and courts have broad discretion to set aside or modify such obligations for several reasons, including simply because the circumstances of one or both of the parents have changed since the support order was originally entered. A parent losing their job or suffering a significant reduction to their income are likely good reasons for the court to modify a support order, but it is also well established that relief from support obligations should not be granted if a party is voluntarily unemployed. The same rule is also applicable in instances when a parent is voluntarily under-employed; for example, a highly skilled computer programmer who could earn $100,000 per year in that field choosing to work as a substitute teacher instead and earn just $30,000 per year.  Most would probably agree that a parent should not be permitted to escape their child support obligation because they made the decision not to work or not work up to anywhere near their full potential. Notwithstanding this general rule, consider the following: A husband and wife have a child; upon divorce, the parents enter a consent order requiring the husband to pay the wife an amount each month for child support; a few years later, the husband, who is still in only in his late-twenties and working two jobs, realizes that neither of his jobs have any opportunity for growth and he has no long-term future with either company; the husband concludes that if he is to establish a well-paying career and be a good provider for his child he must earn his Bachelor’s Degree; therefore, in order to better himself and provide a better future for his child, the husband decides to leave both jobs in order to attend college full time to earn a degree; the husband believes attending school full time, rather than keeping one or both jobs and attending school part time, is the better choice for himself and the child because he will be able to earn his degree much faster, and therefore be able to generate more income for the child’s benefit in a shorter period of time; accordingly, the husband asks the court to have his child support obligation substantially reduced while he is attending school and not working.

A request to have a child support obligation modified based on the above facts seems a lot more legitimate and genuine than when the same request is made by a parent who doesn’t want to be employed simply because they are lazy, unmotivated, or just don’t care. Perhaps many would agree that reducing child support on a short term basis in order to permit a parent to earn a college degree, which will likely result in that parent earning a much higher income, is actually in the child’s best interest, albeit for the long term.  After all, in this day and age it is very difficult to establish a well-paying career for one’s self without (at least) a Bachelor’s Degree, and having a higher income will be very helpful for paying expenses such as the child’s college education and other necessaries.   Recently, however, a court rejected, and the Appellate Division affirmed, an application to temporarily reduce child support based on very similar circumstances to the above hypothetical in the case of Zavaglia v. Bray. The trial court noted that the husband’s loss of employment while he would be attending college was not only voluntary, but also temporary, and therefore no modification of the support order was justified.

Overall, while one’s desire to better themselves and increase their earning potential for the benefit of their child is certainly commendable, based on Zavaglia, it does not appear that courts will permit parents to forsake their child support obligations, even on a short term basis, for this reason alone.

The Value of Information in Divorce Litigation

Every consultation with a prospective family law client begins with a very similar request from the prospective client “Please tell me what results I can expect, both financial and custodial”.  The financial questions include (but are not limited to) those pertaining to expected results as to payment/receipt of spousal and child support, division of liquid and investment assets, division of retirement assets, division of personal property and the necessity of carrying insurance to secure various obligations.  The custodial questions include (but are not limited to) those pertaining to legal custody, physical custody, relocation of one parent with the children, parenting schedules and parenting dispute resolution.

It is not a difficult task for a family law attorney to spout endlessly as to the statutory and case law pertaining to the above-referenced subjects. In fact, once you get many of us started, like many other professionals, it may be difficult to get us to stop discussing the nuances of our fields of expertise.  But the general knowledge that we can impart upon first meeting a prospective client is relatively meaningless to that client.  Why? Because each client is a unique individual with a unique set of circumstances.  Those unique circumstances create almost a limitless set of possible settlement/trial scenarios that must be explored prior to devising a final strategy.

I am a firm believer that no two sets of litigants (spouses, partners, non-married parents) are alike.  In a divorce, a client and her spouse bring to the litigation an extensive number of variables.  For instance, as to alimony alone, we must explore the ages of each party, the number of years married, the education of each spouse, the earnings of each spouse, the numbers of years in the workforce, the parental responsibilities of each spouse, the health of each spouse, and much more.  As to division of the value of a family business, we must explore the business tax returns, the total benefits derived from the business, the source of funds used to create the business, the involvement of each party in the business, the stability of the business, and on and on.

For each issue to be properly explored it is essential for the attorney to request specific information from the client and it is essential for the client to provide that information to the attorney. The specific information will allow the attorney to tailor advice and create a strategy that is tailored to the client.  Divorce is not “one size fits all”, even though many attorneys do attempt to take a simplistic cookie-cutter approach to divorce litigation.

During the course of litigation, gathering the necessary information takes on an important role towards optimizing the final settlement/trial terms for that client.  But it is also just as important for each attorney and client to understand that not only are each client’s “facts” different, the client’s “wants” are different as well.  It is the combination of maximizing wants based on what the facts have revealed that allows a client to achieve optimal results.

Employment and its Influence on Divorce

Divorce
Divorce

A recent online article I came across discussed the interesting issue of whether a spouse’s job loss has an impact on whether the parties will divorce. The author related anecdotally his own experience in having been laid off and how he believed this job loss had served as the catalyst for his divorce.

The article described how the author’s subsequent job search dragged out despite his best efforts and how his wife, understandably, became more and more concerned for the family. In this regard, he related how his wife became more tense and fearful, which led to stress between the two of them. Continue reading “Employment and its Influence on Divorce”

Prenuptial Agreement Basics

Prenuptial Agreement
Prenuptial Agreement

Previously in this blog, we have touched upon the use of a prenuptial agreement to shelter business interests and alternative legal mechanisms to achieve the same, or similar, results (i.e. shareholder agreements and trusts). However, prenuptial agreements, or colloquially “prenups,” may be appropriate even when there is not a business interest to protect. For people entering into a second or third marriage, and who as the primary breadwinner earn significant income, they may wish to limit their exposure to lengthy, and costly, litigation over alimony. In other instances, the prenup may specifically insulate one spouse from substantial debt either brought into the marriage by the other or anticipated to be incurred by the other sometime during the marriage. In any event, parties should have a basic understanding of how a prenup functions to better understand how it may, or may not, be a worthwhile investment.

Initiating the discussion of a prenup with your fiance’ will force you to confront some potentially difficult questions. This can no doubt chill the heat of a romance. However, parties avoid this discussion to their own detriment and true love should be able to survive the reasonable concerns that a prenup is intended to address. Much of the negative reputation comes from a lack of basic knowledge regarding the intent and mechanics of the process. As with many things, knowledge is power and can allow the parties to broach the subject of a prenup as rational adults.

Obviously the purpose of a prenup is to fix and establish the rights of each spouse as to the division of property and/or support upon death or divorce. In New Jersey, the standards of such agreements and their enforcement are governed by statute (N.J.S.A. 37:2-38). To be valid, a prenuptial agreement must be in writing. As it is a contract, it must also be supported by proper consideration. That is, there must be a bargained for exchange of the terms. It must be entered into voluntarily, without coercion, and the parties must represent their competence to enter into such agreements. Importantly, the statute provides that the parties must each make a full and fair disclosure of assets, liabilities and income. Finally, it is critical that the parties consult with independent legal counsel, or else waive their right to do so in writing. Once these requirements are met, it is difficult to set aside the agreement, whether in part or in its entirety, though it is possible per the statute. (See N.J.S.A. 37:2-38 (a) – (c)).

The results of prenuptial agreements when put into effect can be far reaching. But people are marrying later in life after having already established careers and accumulated sometimes significant asset portfolios.  Since it is good planning, and with a desire to limit costs of divorce, there is no reason that prenuptial agreements should not become more commonplace – and lose some of the negative connotations that they invoke.

Social Media and Family Court

social media
social media

The explosion of the numerous forms of social media has in many ways created a potentially fundamental alteration of the way in which family law litigation is conducted.  I will be addressing social media issues in future blogs as well as in this blog as this recent phenomenon (who ever heard of Facebook seven years ago?) has had a profound impact on the way that issues like custody and even financial issues will be addressed.  I will offer an example in this blog of the impact of social media with possible ramifications and will further develop the potential opportunities and dangers to litigants in future blogs and articles.  My example of what we see is based on an actual incident that I have witnessed.  The details here are not important but the broader issues raised are very significant.

We can start with Facebook and stream of consciousness allegations made by a parent in a custody matter.  This particular matter was a bitterly-contested custody dispute that extended many years after the divorce and the original custody determination.  The former wife (we will call her “Sally”) made the allegation in her court documents that her former husband (we will call him “George”) had recently attempted to burn her house down by setting fire to her porch.  She was obviously attempting to raise to the court concerns over George’s mental stability.

In addition, Sally was simultaneously posting entries on Facebook as to her beliefs of George’s alleged arson and her fears of him.  Multiple posting by Sally and her “friends” on Facebook ensued, with many postings, decrying the alleged mental instability of George.  These postings were viewed by George’s personal acquaintances, business referral sources and even the parties’ daughter, who was a “friend” of Sally’s on Facebook.  George finally learned about this from a “friend” who advised him of the exchange.

A copy of the postings were forwarded to George, which George read with disgust, knowing that the allegations were untrue and realizing that his reputation was being sullied with him powerless to prevent it.  However, George was even more astounded when he read the final postings that contained Sally’s admission that she was wrong; that the fire was as a result of a frayed electrical cord.  The court eventually learned of the misrepresentation.  Sally never issued an apology to George, either personally or on Facebook.

Look at all the possible issues that were created by Sally’s postings. She disseminated false allegations to possibly hundreds of people, many of who know both parents.  Does George have a possible tort action against Sally?  Sally may have admitted to falsely certifying to the court serious allegations about George affecting perceptions about him.  Was Sally attempting to alienate the child against George, knowing the child would be reading her posts and her other friends’ posts?

It is clear that use, or more accurately, misuse of a social media can have significant impact on a custody matter.  This theme will continue to be developed in future entries.

Divorce Made (Too) Easy?

For years New Jersey only had one no fault ground for divorce — eighteen month separation — which requires that husband and wife live separate and apart in different residences, where the parties have not engaged in sexual relations with one another, for a period of at least eighteen or more consecutive months. In the case of eighteen month separation, neither party may file a complaint for divorce until after the eighteen month period. The rationale behind this no fault ground is that the State of New Jersey has an interest in preserving family life, and therefore created a eighteen month “cooling off period” when parties do not have fault grounds upon which to divorce.
The reality of the matter is that most people choose not to wait eighteen months due to their desire to quickly terminate the marriage and move on with their lives. This need for quick results lead an overwhelming majority of couples, who had no actual fault grounds for divorce and who could not wait over a year to file for divorce, to file under extreme mental cruelty, which requires that the complaint be filed only three months from the date of the last act of cruelty complained of. Extreme mental cruelty is commonly defined as behavior considered so extremely mentally cruel that it becomes unreasonable to live together as husband and wife. By its very definition, this “fault” ground for divorce is so subjective that anything could really pass as being so extremely mentally cruel that it becomes unreasonable to live together as a married couple.
In fact, many family law practitioners would file what is known as a “vanilla” complaint for extreme mental cruelty for those plaintiffs whose reasons for wanting a divorce did not qualify under any other type of fault ground. Examples of claims alleged in a “vanilla” complaint for extreme mental cruelty are: 1) Defendant has been personally cold and disaffectionate towards the Plaintiff; 2) Defendant has ridiculed and criticized the Plaintiff ; and 3) Defendant has told the Plaintiff on numerous occasions that he no longer loves or cares for her. While these claims certainly got the job done under the extreme mental cruelty ground, it wasn’t until the Legislature enacted the irreconcilable differences statute that parties were able to file for divorce by alleging one simple claim.
The quasi no fault cause of action requires that the plaintiff allege that irreconcilable differences have caused a breakdown of the marriage for a period of six months, which make it appear that the marriage should be dissolved and that there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation. Further, irreconcilable differences do not require that the parties live separate or apart and many people are surprised to learn that they may live together after commencing a divorce action. Thus, today, filing for divorce is arguably easier than applying for a marriage license. Divorce, itself, however, is often an emotionally charged and extremely trying experience for both parties and should not be taken lightly.