When it comes time for a New Jersey family court to determine how much child support to award a parent, it will look to New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines. Yet, what happens if there is more than parent that is owed child support? How is that amount even determined? After 20 years as New Jersey divorce and family attorney, I have always found this to be one of the more complicated areas of the law. Fortunately, the case of Harte v. Hand established a methodology to simplify the process of calculating child support in cases of multiple family obligations. Let’s take a look.
In this case, Hand had three children, each of whom had different mothers. The oldest son lived with Hand and his current wife. The middle child lived with his mother T.B. and the youngest child lived with Hand’s former wife Harte. Hand laid concrete for a living until 2003 when he was injured at the Tropicana in Atlantic City. As a result of the injury, he received a settlement of $1.2 million in 2007 but only netted $533,822. At the time of the settlement, he was married to Harte and paying T.B. child support. He agreed to an imputation of $57,200 in yearly income when recalculating child support for T.B.
In 2008 Hand and Harte divorced. He agreed to an imputation of $57,200 in yearly income as part of the final judgment of divorce. Yet three years later, Hand moved to reduce his child support obligations for both children. Although the trial judge initially denied his application, she said that if Hand presented a vocational expert report to support the motion to reduce support she might reconsider. Taking the judge’s advice into consideration, Hand reapplied to have his child support obligations reduced.
When the trial judge calculated Hand’s child support obligations for the two children not living with him, she looked to the individual financial circumstances of the mothers as provided in New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines. In particular, the trial judge calculated the support obligations using Hand’s imputed yearly income of $57,200 as if the only other child he supported was the oldest son living with him i.e. as if he had no prior child support obligations.
The New Jersey Appellate Division did not agree with the methodology utilized by the trial court. It stated that the calculation should have taken into account the financial effect that one child support court order had on the other. Furthermore, the Appellate Division believed that the trial court’s calculation was inequitable, holding that “equality in treatment for the mothers should not be obtained by requiring Hand to pay an inappropriately high level of support for both children.”
Therefore, the Court held that in order to equitably determine child support for multiple family obligations it would have to calculate two separate child support obligations for each custodial parent and then average the two together. One award would be calculated as if the payor parent had no prior child support obligations while the other one would take into account any prior support orders. Then the court would average each custodial parent’s worksheet together and determine the child support award for that parent.
Applying that methodology to the case at hand, the New Jersey Appellate Division first calculated the child support for Harte without taking into consideration any prior child support orders. It found that to be $216 per week. Next the court calculated the child support for T.B. also without taking into consideration any other child support orders. It found that to be $226 per week. The Appellate Division then determined Harte’s child support award while taking into account other obligations. It found that to be $162 per week, averaged it with the $216 and came up with $189 per week. Similarly, the court determined T.B.’s child support award while taking into account other obligations. It found that to be $172, averaged it with the $226 and came up with $199 per week.
However, since Hand’s weekly child support obligations might have fallen below the self-support reserve leaving him with insufficient income to survive, the court conducted an additional analysis. The self-support reserve makes sure that a non-custodial parent, in addition to a custodial parent, has sufficient income to maintain a basic level of living after child support is awarded. It is calculated by subtracting a parent’s support obligation from his or her net income. In the case where there are multiple family obligations, a court would have to utilize the following steps to calculate the self-support reserve for the non-custodial parent:
(1) Determine the federal poverty guideline amount for the current year
(2) Combine the child support amount determined for each custodial parent
(3) Calculate the net income of the non-custodial parent
(4) Subtract the poverty guideline amount from the non-custodial parent’s net income
a. If the number is below zero, then the payor is below the self-support reserve
Likewise, a court would have to use the following steps to calculate the self-support reserve for the custodial parent:
(1) Take the self-support reserve amount produced on line 25 of the worksheets
(2) For each custodial parent, average the self-support reserve amount
If both parents were above or below the self-support reserve, no additional action would be required. Therefore, the child support award would not be modified. However, if the non-custodial parent were below the self-support reserve while the custodial parent was above it, the child support award would be modified. In the case at bar, the child support award to only Harte would be modified because she was above the self-support reserve while Hand was below it.
The Appellate Division stressed the importance of equity and fairness when determining child support awards for multiple families. Additionally, since T.B. and Harte had significantly different incomes, the court chose to award child support proportionately based on their respective net incomes to ensure fairness.
While I hope that this in depth case analysis can help to answer any questions you may have concerning calculating New child support for multiple families, do not hesitate to contact my New Jersey divorce and family law firm to discuss the matter further. Thank you.