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

If I Start Receiving Social Security Benefits Because I Am Disabled Is My Child Support Recalculated?

Yes.  Under New Jersey law if a parent is declared disabled and is now eligible to receive Social Security benefits, this would amount to a “change of circumstances.”  In turn, your lawyer and a judge of the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey would recalculate child support as per New Jersey’s child support guidelines.  This is provided that the benefits being received are less than the income previously used when calculating the original amount of child support.   

In Golian v. Golian, ex-wife Donna Golian, appealed from the imputation of income on her from a final judgment of divorce, and sought a redetermination and recalculation of alimony, equitable distribution, and attorney’s fees. Since June 1, 1995, Donna had been the recipient of disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Even though the Family Part judge recognized her status as a Social Security disability recipient, she still concluded that Donna had the burden of proving that she could not work through medical documentation. Because Donna failed to present such evidence she failed to meet this burden of proof. On appeal, she argued that her social security disability status should have been a presumption that she could not work, and that the burden should have been on her ex-husband to rebut that presumption, before income was imputed on to her. The New Jersey Appellate Division agreed with Donna and reversed the decision of the Family Part. The appellate panel held that a finding of disability by the Social Security Administration establishes a prima facie showing that the person is indeed disabled, and thus not able to find gainful employment. After that the evidentiary burden moves to the opposing party to rebut the presumption. Furthermore, a declaration of eligibility to receive social security disability benefits is a valid change of circumstance to warrant a Lepis hearing.

Donna and George got married in 1982 and separated sixteen years later in August 1998. On February 29, 2000, a final judgment was entered and they were divorced. Donna had training to sell insurance and had completed one year of college. George had completed two years of college. Throughout the marriage, Donna worked numerous jobs. In the early 1980’s she worked in telecommunications part time. From 1983-84 she sold insurance, and in 1986 she worked full-time with Allnet, earning about $ 20,000 a year. She stopped working in in 1988 due to injuries she sustained in several accidents. She started working again in 1993-94 as part time security guard, earning the minimum wage. 

Donna was determined by the Social Security Administration to be disabled by June 1, 1995. She was receiving $ 585 in monthly disability benefits at the time of trial. As evidence, Donna provided a “Report of Confidential Social Security Benefit Information” that was issued on March 24 1999 by the Social Security Administration. This report showed the amount of the benefits she was receiving, and stated that she became disabled on June 1, 1995 because of a neurological problem. George did not dispute her social security disability status, as he was the one who helped her apply for disability benefits in the first place, and drove her to the required meetings, conferences, and hearings. When the couple was living together, they used the money from the monthly benefits for joint marital obligations. 

At trial, Donna gave testimony about her several physical, emotional and psychological disabilities, which included leg pain, back pain, and auditory hallucinations. Her mental health treatment included twice-a-week appointments with a psychologist, which she attended for two years. During the marriage, she had been hospitalized twenty-one times, including psychiatric confinements. Donna testified that she could not work because her conditions prevented her from doing simple tasks. The medication she took would make her drowsy, she had pain and needed rest, and had auditory hallucinations. 

The medical documentation provided during the course of the litigation showed that she suffered from cervical herniated pulposus with radiculopathy, bilateral temporomandibular join dysfunction, fibromyalgia, multifocal polyneuropathy in the lower extremities, and major depression with auditory hallucinations and paranoia. George on the other hand did not have any health problems and had been steadily employed throughout the marriage. He was earning about $ 53,000 a year at the time of trial. Despite her disabilities, George argued that Donna was capable of working. He claimed that between 1997-98 she was caring for her parents full-time for which she received $ 200 a week from her brother. Donna denied this claim, and stated that she merely visited her parents often, and that the money she received from her brother was only a loan. 

The Family Part judge found that the Social Security Administration’s determination was evidential, but neither binding nor a basis to presume Donna was unable to work. The judge said that there was not enough evidence on the record to allow a finding that Donna was disabled. In fact, the Family Part court found that she actually did have the capacity to contribute towards her own support for at least $ 15,000 a year. The judge noted that she had a license to sell insurance, or could try to earn some money as a security guard as she did in the past. With that in mind, the Family Part judge imputed $ 15,660 a year in income to her, for the purpose of calculating the appropriate counsel fee and alimony awards. As a result, George was ordered to pay $ 300 a week in alimony, compared to the $ 3,100 he paid in pendente lite support. The judge also reduced the pendente lite counsel fee award to $ 2,000 from $ 7,500. The property and debts were divided equally between both George and Donna.  

The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that income can be imputed on to a person if he or she is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed. This means the person must be acting intentionally without the existence of just cause. When someone claims that they cannot work because of a disability, he or she has the burden to prove the disability actually exists. Usually, that person has to provide evidence to meet that burden. In Golian, however, Donna, the person with the disability, had been adjudicated by the Social Security Administration to be disabled. To be adjudicated as disabled requires the Social Security Administration to make a finding that one’s mental and physical deficiencies were of such a degree that not only could she not do her past job, but cannot work any other substantial gainful job. This requires a consideration of the person’s age, education, and work education. This determination has to be an individual inquiry, based on the evidence offered at a hearing. 

Donna relied on several New Jersey cases that held that determinations by administrative agencies are presumed to be correct. Courts must afford deference to administrative review as long as they are supported by credible and substantial evidence in the factual record, and are not capricious or arbitrary. The New Jersey Supreme Court has recognized that administrative findings from one hearing can provide a basis for establishing prima facie proof of a claim’s validity in an action in court. Then, the burden shifts to the person disputing the administration’s finding to rebut its legitimacy. 

The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that George did not present any evidence to challenge the reasonableness of the Social Security Administration’s determination of Donna’s disability. In fact, he actually helped Donna get social security disability benefits in the first place. The appellate panel held that a finding of disability by the Social Security Administration establishes a prima facie showing that the person is indeed disabled, and thus not able to find gainful employment. After that the evidentiary burden moves to the opposing party to rebut the presumption. Furthermore, a declaration of eligibility to receive social security disability benefits is a valid change of circumstance to warrant a Lepis hearing. Therefore, the order of the Family Part was reversed, and a new trial was ordered. 

Our law firm can assist you with any child support issue.