Can Child Support Be Agreed To Between The Parents In New Jersey?
Yes, provided it is not less than New Jersey Child Support Guidelines allows for under the law. In other words, the lawyers at our East Brunswick, New Jersey law firm understand that while the parents of a child may agree to pay more than New Jersey child support laws call for, but never less as this would unfair to the child to a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey. It is also important to note that your attorney should be sure to explain all aspects of child support before making a decision to consent to child support, in order to end=sure neither your child (or you) is paying more or less than appropriate.
In Longer v. Nace, the parties divorced in 2002 after eleven years of marriage. Their two children were seven and ten years old at the time of the divorce. As part of the Property Settlement Agreement that was incorporated into the Final Judgment of Divorce, the parties agreed that “they would share equally all costs of their children’s post-secondary education and that their obligation to make payments for the support and maintenance of the children would terminate upon the emancipation of each child.” They defined emancipation as either “reaching the age of eighteen years or completion of college education, whichever last occurs.”
Both children attended private colleges following their graduations from High School. As was determined in the Property Settlement Agreement, both parties equally shared the costs of their children’s college educations. Not wanting to force either child into debt, the parents covered the costs of their college expenses without first requiring them to exhaust all available loans, grants and scholarships. The Father, a retired teacher, and the Mother, a director of special services for a school district, consequently went into considerable debt to support their children’s college educations.
After the daughter graduated from college, the Father moved to declare her emancipated in accordance with their Property Settlement Agreement. He requested the same for their son, who graduated from college and had been working full-time for two years living with his Mother, and enrolled in law school. The Mother acknowledged the emancipation of the son, but opposed the Father’s motion to emancipate the daughter. She relied on N.J. Statute § 2A:17-56.67 which provides generally that “the obligation to pay child support shall terminate by operation of law when a child reaches twenty-three years of age.”
The Mother further argued that the daughter had recently enrolled in a two-year program to obtain a master’s degree in social work, was living at home with her, and was unable to work full-time due to her field placement obligations. She therefore stated that her daughter was “not emancipated by any equitable standard or the legal standard recently imposed by the New Jersey Legislature.” The court then entered an order emancipating the parties’ son, but denying the motion to emancipate the daughter.
Because the Mother was not seeking contribution to the daughter’s graduate school expenses but only a continuation of the Father’s child support obligations, the court utilized the factors laid out in Newburgh v. Arrigo in order to reach its conclusion that the daughter had not “moved beyond her parents’ sphere of influence” and therefore denied the Father’s request to enforce the Property Settlement Agreement. The factors laid out in the Newburgh case are used in evaluating a claim for contribution toward the cost of higher education. However, not only is this court not under an obligation to adhere to those guidelines, they also are geared towards evaluating contributions toward college expenses, not continued child support.
On appeal, the Appellate Division stated that Property Settlement Agreements are followed unless there is a showing of “unconscionability, fraud, or overreaching in negotiations of the settlement.” The agreement can also be modified by the court on a showing of sufficiently changed circumstances. Here, the parties agreed in their Property Settlement Agreement that they would support their children through the age of eighteen, or upon completion of their college education, whichever last occurred. The Father and Mother also both acknowledged that the agreement was fair and equitable at the time it was executed.
The Mother’s reliance on the N.J. Statute stating that the obligation to pay child support terminates by operation of law when a child reaches twenty-three years of age was misplaced. This statute establishes an outer limit for the payment of child support, as the statute states prior to that sentence that the obligation terminates when a child reaches nineteen years of age unless another age is specified by the court, which shall not extend beyond the date the child reaches twenty-three years of age.
Here, the parties agreed in a fairly executed Property Settlement Agreement that child support would terminate at the age of eighteen or when the child graduated from college. As the Mother provided no evidence of changed circumstances that would warrant a modification of the Property Settlement Agreement, the Appellate Division determined that the trial court erred in refusing to follow the agreement.
Our lawyers stand prepared to help you or a loved one with a child support case.