A child support hearing office or a judge of the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey may order that a parent’s child support may be paid via wage garnishment up to 55% of their net income for a child support order. This is one of many reasons that a parent should have a lawyer who exclusively handles family law and child support cases here in the state of New Jersey. The lawyers at our law firm know New Jersey's child support guidelines like the back of our hands. Following is this attorney’s take on a recent decision regarding wage garnishment and child support.
In Tektas v. Covino, the parties were married on December 10, 1994. The parties had two sons born of the marriage, Brett and Brandon. On October 24, 2000, the parties separated and the mother filed for divorce on November 13, 2000. On December 10, 2001, the parties entered into a property settlement agreement (“PSA”), which divided the parties’ assets and debts, as well as resolved other issues between the parties. The parties divorced in December 2001.
The father was a lieutenant in the Middlesex County Sheriff’s Department and subsequently retired from the department. When the father was eligible for Social Security benefits, he chose to have Brandon, the parties’ younger son, receive $1000 per month for twenty-four months from the benefits. Brandon received $1000 per month over a twenty-four month period from age 16 to 18. The father also paid child support for Brandon at that time.
The parties filed cross-motion after the divorce in the Superior Court of New Jersey Family Part. The court entered a consent order on June 1, 2015, which resolved the issues. The consent order stated that Brett, the parties’ older son, was emancipated, meaning he was legally considered an adult. The order also required the father to pay $168 per week in child support for Brandon and required the father to maintain heath insurance for Brett. Also, the consent order recognized that the mother was receiving $1000 per month from the father’s Social Security benefits on behalf of Brandon. Lastly, the consent order addressed issues of Brandon’s college costs. Specifically, the order stated that the father was to be able to fully participate in the selection and financial aid process, and stated that Brandon must maintain a certain GPA or he would be emancipated.
The father asked the court to enforce the consent order on November 20, 2015 and the mother objected. The father then asked the court to determine that Brandon is emancipated, for documentation regarding the Social Security benefits paid to Brandon, and for termination of child support for Brandon, including college expenses. The father argued that the mother did not comply with the consent order because the father did not participate in Brandon’s college process and was not given access to his financial aid information. The father also claimed that his Social Security benefits were being used by the mother and not going toward Brandon’s college expenses. The mother filed a cross-motion with the court on April 6, 2016. The mother asked the court to impose sanctions on the father for frivolous litigation, require the father to pay half of Brandon’s college expenses, reimburse the mother for out-of-pocket expenses for Brandon’s college books and tuition, require the father to treat the mother and Brandon with respect, and require the father to pay attorneys fees. The mother claimed that the father did not try to contact Brandon to discuss college. She also stated that Brandon still lived at home and that Ocean County College is very affordable. Lastly, she stated that the Social Security benefits money that Brandon received went toward anything Brandon needed such as clothing and school supplies.
On April 22, 2016, during oral argument, the father requested an order to determine how his Social Security benefits were being used. He also requested a plenary hearing to determine Brandon’s emancipation. The judge could not conduct a plenary hearing that day, but found that the parties were unable to communicate effectively to make decisions that were in Brandon’s best interests. The judge also denied the father’s request to emancipate Brandon and to hold a plenary hearing. Also, the judge found that the father was informed of Brandon’s college selection and ordered that the father be given access to Brandon’s financial aid information. The mother’s request to have the father reimburse her for half of Brandon’s college costs was also denied. Furthermore, the court denied the father’s request to compel an assessment of the Social Security benefits and the mother’s request for attorneys’ fees. The judge also denied the father’s request to terminate child support and any obligation toward Brandon’s college costs. Instead, the judge recommended the parties attend economic mediation. Lastly, the judge ordered both parties to deposit $2,500 in the attorneys’ accounts to be used for Brandon’s tuition and other expenses.
The father then filed an appeal without participating in economic mediation. On appeal, the father claimed that the Family Part was wrong to deny a plenary hearing and that it abused its discretion by not enforcing the consent order. The New Jersey Appellate Division noted that the decisions of the lower court are binding when they are supported by credible and reliable evidence. Also, the Appellate Division stated that it should refer to the factual findings of the lower court because the lower court has particular expertise in the field.
The Appellate Division stated that despite that father’s claims that the Social Security money should have been put toward Brandon’s college expenses, the consent order required the parties to share that expense. The father argued on appeal that the lower court should have enforced the consent order; however, the Appellate Division found that the lower court did enforce the consent order by requiring the parties to deposit money into attorney accounts for Brandon. The Appellate Division reasoned that consent orders function like a contract, and as long as the contract is equitable, the court must enforce the agreement as the parties planned.
The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court’s decision not to emancipate Brandon. The court reasoned that emancipation is not automatic just because the child turned eighteen. The court stated that the determining question is independent and has moved beyond the range of parental influence. The Appellate Division also stated that the parties voluntarily agreed to support Brandon beyond the age of eighteen. Also, the court stated that a parent cannot waive a child’s right to be supported in a property settlement agreement. Therefore, the Appellate Division held that the provision of the PSA that emancipated Brandon for failing to maintain a certain GPA is unenforceable. The Appellate Division agreed with the lower court that the father did not show that Brandon was emancipated because Brandon was still living with the mother, attending college full-time and being supported by his parents.
The Appellate Division also found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion by denying the father a plenary hearing. The court reasoned that the father did not provide any evidence to show that he tried to participate in Brandon’s college selection or financial aid process. The Appellate Division also found that there was no abuse of discretion because the court recommended economic mediation, which would have provided more discovery to the father. Ultimately, the Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the lower court.
Please contact our law firm if you, family or a friend is grappling with a New Jersey child support issue.