Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

How Does A “Gifted” Child Affect New Jersey Child Support Guideline?

            As a tested family law attorney, I understand that New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines allow for additional funds to be paid, by both parents, for a “gifted” child.  The lawyers at our firm understand that the reasoning is that the additional money for a gifted child must be precisely and sensibly allocated for this purpose.  Furthermore, a gifted child is one who has established a uniquely focused aspiration and aptitude to succeed in a certain endeavor.  Therefore, in New Jersey both parents must contribute an amount of funds, on top of child support, so that their child will not be hamstrung from fulfilling their potential to achieve something truly special simply because their parents split up.  The following case elaborates on this complex are of New Jersey Child Support law.

            In P.S. v. J.S., the Honorable Judge Jones of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Ocean County, explored what exactly a “gifted” child is, as referenced in the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines. The issue in this case was whether or not to grant the mother’s motion that requested an order that would require the father to pay a limited amount of extra funds, above and beyond the normal guideline level of child support, to help pay for the costs of their teenage daughter’s expenses relating to acting and other extracurricular activities. Judge Jones held that, in general, a non-residential parent’s payment of child support consistent with the guidelines, covers the cost of any extracurricular activities. However, the Guidelines also permit the Family Part to depart from the Guidelines, and adjust the child support obligation to cover addition amounts for various reasons, including if the child is “gifted” in a certain discipline or field. Unfortunately, the Child Support Guidelines do not provide guidance on how to determine what exactly qualifies being “gifted.” As such, the Family Part must use reason to interpret and apply giftedness on a case by case, fact sensitive basis, using logic and practical sense in relation to the specific circumstances presented. Using this standard, Judge Jones held that the question of whether a child is “gifted” for purposes of child support rests on the  child’s abilities, aptitude, and achievements relating to either athletics; academics; technology; or the arts. Judge Jones was sure to note that this question is not limited to those categories, and that other areas of focus and categories may exist depending of the specific facts of the case. Furthermore, even if a Family Part court finds that a child is gifted, any additional obligation to fund the child’s development of his or her giftedness, must be financially reasonable, with a substantial deference to each parent’s financial situation and actual ability to pay.

            At the time this issue was decided, P.S. and J.S. had already been divorced for seven years. During the course of their marriage, they have one child together, Julie, who was thirteen years old at the time of the motion hearing. The parents shared joint legal custody of Julie, and J.S., the mother, was designated as the primary residential custodian, while P.S., the father, enjoyed liberal and reasonable parenting time. P.S. paid J.S. $ 133 in base child support every week. This amount was consistent with this state’s Child Support Guidelines, based on him having a gross imputed income of $ 33,000 a year, and J.S.’s gross imputed income of $ 23,000 a year.

            The parents had a litigious history, and went to the Family Part to resolve child related issues many times. Julie was interviewed by the court a few times during this litigious period. During all her interviews, it became quite clear that she had a dedication and focus on theater and performing.  Judge Jones noted that her interest in stage performance had intensified from 2014 to 2016, and that she wanted to audition and compete for roles now, instead of some day in the future. She was characterized as having a clear and consistent focus on what she wants to accomplish, in conjunction with a realistic and practical recognition of all the hard work that she would need to do to be successful in her goals. She was so committed to her goals that in both the 2014 and 2016 interviews, she stressed that regardless of what kind of parenting time schedule was ultimately set for her, she did not want it to conflict with her theater related activities, like chorus, or rehearsals for community theater. She wanted to spend her summer attending rehearsals, and was committed to rehearse every Saturday between nine in the morning and noon. She wanted to be sure that her parents reserved these times for her to practice her craft.  Judge Jones characterized Julie as one the most committed children he had interviewed in many years, and stated that for this child acting was not merely an extracurricular activity or hobby, but an integral part of her current and future goals.

            While both parents recognizes how important acting was to Julie, and supported her ambitions, an issue arose relating to the allocation of funding. The parents were not able to reach a mutually consensual agreement for the costs of Julie’s theater-related activities. J.S., the mother, wanted P.S., the father, to contribute funds in addition to his child support obligation. Specifically, she wanted him to be responsible for paying half of all costs related to extracurricular activities. Conversely, P.S. did not want to pay an additional money, and argued that the costs for such activities were already included in his basic child support obligation under New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines.

            J.S. sought extra support for Julie’s extracurricular activities partly because of her own modest income, the fact that she only received $ 113 a week in child support according to the guidelines, and her alleged inability to pay for the costs of the extracurricular activities on her own. She contended that she needed all of the $ 113 a week that she got in child support to pay for the expenses relating to raising and providing shelter for Julie, and it would be incredibly difficult for her to pay for theater related costs for Julie with some additional help from P.S. She claimed that the costs for travel, clothes, make-up, coaching, dues, and other related expenses could add up to several hundred dollars every year.

            According to Comment 8 to Appendix IX-A of New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines, generally, a child’s entertainment expenses are factored into a guideline level support obligation. As per Comment 8 the Family Part of Ocean County partly agreed with P.S. that a child’s extracurricular expenses are usually factored into guideline level support. Even though Comment 3 authorizes a court to deviate from the guidelines, Judge Jones stated that there was not much in the record to warrant a deviation for “general” extracurricular activities, except for one major exception.

Judge Jones reasoned that in this specific case, Julie’s acting related expenses were different enough from her “general” extracurricular activities to warrant another layer of analysis under equity. He stated that when the evidence at hand shows that a child has an immense commitment to, and special love for a particular discipline or field, it is appropriate and fair for a Family Part court to, at the very least, hear and consider this factor as it relates to the child’s best interest.

While Comment 8 to Appendix IX-A of the Child Support Guidelines relates to entertainment expenses in general, Comment 9(d) explicitly provides that a Family Part court may supplement guideline level support with additional funds to help cover the costs related to the special needs and development of a “gifted” child. This begs the questions, what exactly is a gifted child? The Child Support Guidelines, curiously, chose not to define “gifted.” Judge Jones reasoned that that decision of the drafters of the Guidelines to not define the term gifted, may reflect an intention to leave the applicability of term to the discretion of the Family Part on an individual case basis.

Judge Jones referenced Webster’s Dictionary which defines gifted as one who has “great natural ability.” He then explained that when someone calls a child gifted, they usually refer to above-average skills and talents in athletics, academics, technology, and the arts. With that said, Judge Jones stated they may be other areas in which a child might be considered gifted. In athletics, academics, and technology giftedness is more easily measured by, at least in part, game statistics, test scores, and the ability to master certain systems, and processes. Measuring giftedness in art, however, is much less tangible. Judge Jones stated, that in the interest of equity and fairness, a Family Part court must employ a more logical analysis than a simple subjective critique of the child’s performance. In this case, the Family Part measured Julie’s giftedness by her desire, extraordinary drive, focus, and commitment to perform on stage and act at her young age. Furthermore, the judge found her to be incredibly articulate, was inherently poised, and was very much extraverted in her personality.

Judge Jones reasoned that, legally, the reason behind including the gifted exception in the Child Support Guidelines is not reward child or their custodians with arbitrary financial bonuses for inborn talents, but to provide a little extra, but specifically earmarked, reasonable funds to promote a child’s potential, when that same child shows an unusually high ability and desire to succeed in a specific field. In this respect, Judge Jones found Julie to be a gifted child, through her attitude, confidence, unusually heightened ability and desire, and willingness to commit and work hard. As such, he found it equitable and fair under the Guidelines to order both parents to contribute a small, reasonable annual amount to supplement and help support Julie’s acting-related expenses and efforts. After considering the available information, the Family Part ordered, unless the parties jointly agreed otherwise, each parent would contribute a reasonable sum of up to an extra $ 250 a year, earmarked for the development of Julie’s theatrical skills.

Finally, Judge Jones made sure to note that this case is not intended to be interpreted as requiring parents to contribute towards any extra activity a child may happen to like. There is a clear distinction between general extracurricular activities, and an isolated discipline or skill when a child demonstrates a highly impressive commitment. In the end, all issues relating to child support must, ultimately, serve the child’s best interest.

            Please contact our law firm if you have questions regarding New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines.