Pursuant to the applicable child support laws, New Jersey has the authority to make available the name of any delinquent obligor and the amount of overdue support he or she owes to credit reporting agencies. Furthermore, pursuant to subsection (b), the State can also make that information available to credit reporting agencies if the obligor is in arrears. Although it is clear that the statute applies in cases where a parent fails to honor an existing child support order, an experienced family lawyer can explain what happens if the parent suddenly owes arrears as a result of a retroactively imposed support order? Will the statute apply as well? That was the issue addressed by attorneys in the case of Cameron v. Cameron. Let’s explore.
In the case the parties divorced in 2008 after being married for three years. At the time, they entered into a property settlement agreement. Pursuant to the agreement, the parties agreed to share joint legal custody of their six-year-old daughter, with the mother as the primary residential parent. Additionally, the parties agreed that the father would pay child support of $75 per week.
Afterward though, the daughter started living with her father without objection by either party. As a result, on July 18, 2014 the father filed a post-judgment motion for a court order modifying the prior settlement agreement so that he was officially the primary residential parent. Furthermore, the father sought termination of his child support obligation and wanted the mother to being paying child support as the non-residential parent. Moreover, the father requested that the court make the mother’s new child support obligation retroactive to the motion filing date of July 18, 2014, pursuant to N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.23a.
Initially, the family court clerk’s office scheduled the father’s motion for a return date of September 26, 2014. On that date, the parties appeared in court and took part in the proceedings involving the contested issues of custody and support. However, the court had to continue the matter to November 17, 2014, and temporarily relieved the father of his child support obligation. At the end of the hearing in November, the court entered an order keeping the parties’ status as having joint legal custody of the child. However, the court did grant the father primary residential custody.
Furthermore, the court granted the father’s application to terminate his child support obligation, retroactive to his original motion filing date of July 18, 2014. Moreover, the court established the mother’s child support obligation to be $86 per week, also retroactive to the original motion filing date. Due to the retroactive nature of the new support order, the mother owed the father $1499 in technical arrears and was instructed to repay the arrears at an additional $14 per week, on top of her $86 per week.
Although the mother initially accepted her retroactive child support obligation and the arrearage repayment schedule, she raised a concern to her attorney about the negative consequence the arrears might have if reported as a delinquency. She looked to N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.21(a), which states that “an obligor who owes child support arrears is potentially subject to various legal consequences, including probation’s reporting of the arrears to credit reporting agencies.” Therefore, the issue presented was “whether the terms of the statute required the reporting of technical arrears against a non-residential parent who has never violated a support order or missed any legally specified payments, in the same manner as against an obligor who has failed to make payments or otherwise violated an existing order.” The court held that the answer was no.
The court first looked to the language of the statute itself. Although the statute does not define a minimum amount of arrears for mandatory reporting, the court noted that probation generally uses a threshold of $1000. The court then looked to the legislative history of the statute and its purpose when enacted. The court concluded that the purpose was to address the problem of delinquent obligors, not non-delinquent obligors who technically owed arrears as a result of a retroactively imposed order. If a non-delinquent obligor had to report his or her arrears to a credit agency, it could be misleading to anyone reading and relying upon his or her credit report and could damage his or her credit score. This could be detrimental, especially for a new divorcee who is trying to get back on his or her feet and needs a strong credit score because it would be very difficult to borrow money at reasonable rates and leverage credit limits to make necessary purchases or investments otherwise.
Ultimately, the Cameron court’s decision preserved the fairness and equity intended by the enactment of N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.21(a). Clearly, the court determined that it would be unfair for a non-delinquent obligor to have to report to a credit agency if he or she was in arrears due to a retroactively imposed support order. To discuss this matter further, do not hesitate to contact my office today.