How Is Supplemental Child Support Determined When The Parents’ Incomes Surpass The Maximum As Per New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines?
In Isaacson v. Isaacson, the parties were married for twelve years. The parties had two daughters born of the marriage, Rebecca and Sara. The parties were divorced on January 22, 1996. The judgment of divorce included a property settlement agreement, which laid out essential terms of the divorce, such as custody, child support, and alimony. The agreement stated that the parties would share legal custody of their daughters, meaning they would both make important decisions regarding the children, such as educational and health decisions. The agreement also stated that the mother would be the parent of primary residence, meaning the children would primarily live with the mother. The father was required to pay the mother alimony in the amount of $2,600 per month until the last payment was made on November 1, 1999. The father agreed to pay $1,200 per month in child support, as well as pay for the children’s summer camp and unreimbursed medical expenses. Additionally, the father agreed to pay an extra $800 per month toward the girls’ school tuition for in 1996 and 1997, and the payments after 1997 were to be negotiated.
Despite the property settlement agreement, many issues arose after the divorce. Consequently, the mother also filed a motion with the court seeking an increase in child support in September 1999. The mother supported her motion by demonstrating that the father’s circumstances changed since his annual income had substantially increased. The mother demonstrated that at the time of the divorce, she was unemployed, but she was now making approximately $50,000 per year. She also demonstrated that the father was earning approximately $180,000 per year at the time of the divorce, but he was now earning approximately $500,000 per year. The mother indicated that she could no longer support the children with the current child support payments since her alimony award was about to end. The father acknowledged the increase in his income and the judge ordered the father to provide his personal and business tax returns from 1998 as well as a certified statement of his anticipated 1999 earnings. Although the mother requested additional discovery regarding the father’s business, the judge denied the request since the father stated he could pay any amount of child support ordered and the mother failed to show how the additional discovery would be beneficial.
In addition, the mother asked the court to increase the amount the father was required to contribute to the girls’ private school tuition. In December 1997, Hartz helped the parties mediate this issue and the parties agreed that the father would pay 79% of the girls’ tuition and all of their summer camp expenses. The father also paid approximately $7,000 per year for the girls’ medical and dental expenses, and took the children on vacation. As a result, the judge ordered that the mother write out the children’s monthly expenses for evaluation. The judge also ordered temporary child support in the amount of $5,000 per month until the final hearing on the issue. At the final hearing, the father was ordered to pay $3,500 per month in child support, and the judge rejected the mother’s argument that child support should triple since the father’s income tripled. The judge also ordered that the tuition payment percentages remain the same with the father paying 79% of the school costs.
The Appellate Divisionaddressed the issue of child support on appeal. The court explained that child support orders may be modified and the party seeking to modify has the burden of proving a change in circumstance. The Appellate Division stated that the mother met her burden because the children have matured and required more assistance financially, and the father acknowledged the increase in his income. The court explained that children are entitled to the advantages that come with a parent’s good fortune. The court stated that the children’s needs should be in accordance with both parents’ standard of living. The Appellate Division then explained that an increase in child support should be considered after evaluating the factors set out in N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a). The court also explained that when the parents’ income levels surpass the maximum in the child support guidelines, child support may be supplemented with an additional award. The court stated that the main consideration in determining a supplemental award is the child’s reasonable needs. In making such a determination, the court must also consider the health and age of the children, and the children’s income or assets. The Appellate Division noted that the court must find a balance between the children’s lifestyle opportunities and the children’s reasonable needs. Additionally, the children are also entitled to reasonable non-essential items. In evaluating reasonable non-essential items, the Appellate Division stated that incidental benefits to the custodial parent are not prohibited. However, the court explained that incidental benefits that are primarily beneficial to the parent and not the child are not allowed.
The Appellate Division held that the trial court did not err by increasing the child support award to $3,500 per month. The Appellate Division held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion by increasing the award based on the modification factors. The Appellate Division also held that the trial court was correct to reject the mother’s request to increase the father’s support obligation by the percentage that his income increased. The court explained that child support awards are not supposed to increase at the same percentage as the parent’s income. The Appellate Division, however, disagreed with the trial court regarding the girls’ school expenses. The Appellate Division held that the father should pay all expenses for the girls’ private school education because the parties’ agreement was made before the father’s income increased. Ultimately, the Appellate Division removed the guardian ad litem and mediator, and required the father to pay all the children’s school expenses, as well as increased the father’s child support obligation.
On December 29, 1997, the New Jersey Superior Court Family Part judge appointed Judith Hartz, Esq. to be mediator and guardian ad litem for the children. A mediator is appointed to help resolve issues between the parties related to finances, property, and any children. A guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to serve and report to the court the best interests of the children. Hartz took on the dual role and successfully resolved many disputes between the parties, such as the cost of school tuition. In her role as guardian ad litem, Hartz helped resolve parenting time issues, among other issues. As required by her role, Hartz forwarded to the court reports involving the best interests of the children and any concerns she had involving the children. However, the mother felt that Hartz was biased toward her and filed an application with the court to remove Hartz as both guardan ad litem and mediator. As a result, Hartz voluntarily gave up her role as mediator. The mother continued to have issues with Hartz’s role as guardian ad litem but the court told the mother that it had no intention of terminating Hartz’s role as guardian ad litem or mediator.
Also on appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division considered whether a person can serve as both a mediator and guardian ad litem. The Appellate Division stated that a guardian ad litem is appointed when there is an issue between the parties regarding parenting time and custody. The court noted that the guardian ad litem is meant to represent the best interests of the children and file a report to the court with recommendations based on the children’s best interests. Some duties of the guardian ad litem may include: interviewing the children, parents, or other important parties; reviewing important documentation; speaking to the parties’ attorneys and the court; acquiring the assistance of experts and other lawyers; and other relevant duties. The Appellate Division also noted that the guardian ad litem is to act as an impartial investigator, factfinder, and evaluator on behalf of the court and the children. The Appellate Division stated that a mediator is also appropriate in custody and parenting time cases; however, the rules of the court acknowledge that a mediator cannot also make recommendations to the court regarding custody or visitation or be required to file any reports to the court. The Appellate Division found that although Hartz was appointed by the court as an economic mediator, common sense and court rules prohibit a person from acting as a mediator and guardian ad litem. In fact, the Appellate Division stated that the rules contain a fail-safe provision, which allows termination of a mediator when a party to a case feels that the mediator is biased or not acting impartially. Although the Appellate Division found that Hartz was not biased against the mother, it ultimately concluded that Hartz cannot act as both mediator and guardian ad litem because the role of mediator requires confidentiality which conflicts with a guardian ad litem’s responsibility to report to the court.