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

When College Begins, Is Child Support Recalculated Under New Jersey Law?

Throughout my career as an attorney in my hometown of East Brunswick, New Jersey, I could not tell you how many times I have asked my client, “have your circumstances changed since the most recent child support court order?”  This is because all of the lawyers at my office understand this is what is required to provoke a change in child support at the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey.  Once perfect example is when a child begins college.

In Duggan v. Geller, father Larry Geller appealed from an order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Monmouth County dated June 26, 2014. He argued that the court’s decision regarding his and his ex-wife, Edith A. Duggan’s payment of their daughter’s college and “other related expenses” was not in tune with the best interest of their child. Larry furthered argued that the trial court was not “fair and impartial” during the course of trial and in its judgment. The New Jersey Appellate Division reviewed the decision, and affirmed the order of the Family Part.

Larry and Edith were parents to two children. One was born in 1994, and the other was born in 1996. In July of 2012, Larry filed a motion to terminate child support for the older child, and reduce child support for the younger child. Edith cross-moved for various relief, including increased support based on the oldest child’s college expenses, and enforcement of older orders regarding health insurance and other outstanding obligations. The written submissions were considered by Judge Kathleen A Sheedy. She permitted oral argument, required additional submissions and then considered additional argument. In the court’s resulting order, the trial judge denied the termination of support for Larry and Edith’s older daughter, reduced Larry’s weekly support obligation from seven hundred twenty-six dollars per week to three hundred sixty-three dollars per week. She also required the parents to share their daughter’s college expenses. Accordingly, Larry would be responsible for eighty percent of those costs after financial aid. Furthermore the order required him to reimburse Edith for past college expenses, and also granted Edith’s motion for enforcement of prior court orders. The trial judge issued an immensely detailed seventeen-page opinion which explained the reasons for the court’s order.

According to her written decision, Judge Sheedy determined Larry established a change in circumstances that warranted a review of his child support obligation. This review was based on the daughter’s enrollment in college, where she lived during the school year. The trial court reviewed the financial information submitted by both parents, imputed income on to Larry. Sometimes courts will impute income on one spouse when calculating a modification. According to the 1998 New Jersey Appellate Division case of Dorfman v. Dorfman, a finding of voluntary underemployment without good cause is necessary before a court will consider of imputation of income and order discovery of the full financial circumstances of each party. Upon such a finding and after the ordered discovery the judge will then determine whether the changed circumstances justify an imputation of income.

 The court then applied each of the statutory factors enumerated in New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23(a) to calculate and properly determine his child support obligation. The New Jersey Supreme Court stated that the power of the courts to modify alimony and support orders comes from New Jersey Statute 2A:34-23. The court has the authority to review and modify alimony and child support orders upon a showing of changed circumstances. A few examples of valid changed circumstances include: an increase in living cost; increase or decrease in the supporting spouse’s income; illness or disability; the dependent spouse living with another partner;  or employment by the dependent spouse. Courts have consistently rejected requests for modification for temporary changes in circumstances, or expected changes that have not occurred. An increase in children’s needs due to maturing has also been held to justify and increase in support as long as the supporting parent is financially able. 

Similarly, the judge addressed the issue of college expenses by reviewing each of the factors identified by the Supreme Court of New Jersey in the paramount 1982 case of Newburgh v. Arrigo, and determined the parents’ obligation for their daughter’s college expenses. Finally, the trial court reviewed Edith’s arguments for enforcement, and the court orders with which she claimed Larry did not comply. Accordingly, the trial court determined what orders should be enforced, and which should not, specifically finding that one of Edith’s arguments, regarding the children’s custodial accounts, were unsupported by the factual and evidentiary record. 

In support of his argument that the court did not act fairly and without bias, Larry merely stated that “the children and he deserve better,” and recommended that the matter be transferred to another vicinage. He made no other argument in support of his claim. 

An appellate court’s scope of review of a Family Part order is limited as the opinion of the trial judge in child support matters is given great weight on appeal. Appellate courts give great deference to Family Part findings of fact because of its special expertise in family matters. Moreover the New Jersey Appellate Division is bound by a trial court’s findings as long as those finds are supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. This type of judicial deference is especially appropriate when the evidence is mostly testimonial and involves questions of credibility. The New Jersey Appellate Division will on the other hand reverse an order when the record is insufficient to support the trial court’s findings. 

As long as a trial court remained consistent with the law, any reward it ordered would not be changed unless it is clearly unreasonable, arbitrary, or obviously contrary to evidence. However, child support obligation may be changed if the party can show changed circumstance. Do to so, a motion for modification needs to have a copy of the prior case information statement attached to it in addition to a current case information statement. A case information statement is a document which is filed with a court clerk at the commencement of a civil lawsuit in many of the court systems of the United States. It is generally filed along with the complaint.  The purpose of a case information statement is to let the judge and court clerk know what type of case is being brought by the parties, so that they can better prepare for the case to come to trial. If the party seeking a change in child support established a prima facie proof of a substantial change in circumstance, the court will order the other party to file a current case information statement as well. Any order of child support requires both parents to provide their complete financial information. This is to provide the judge with a complete picture of the parties’ finances. 

Lepis v. Lepis, is one of the most paramount cases in New Jersey family law, and illustrates the proper procedure required for modifying support and maintenance arrangements after a final judgment of divorce has been entered. A showing of changed circumstances is required in the modification of both child support and alimony. Then, the court will consider both the finances of both parents, and the best interests of the children and determine a solution that is equitable to both parties. 

The New Jersey Appellate Division found all of Larry’s arguments without sufficient merit to even warrant discussion in a written opinion. The appellate panel affirmed the order of the trial court for the same reasons stated by Judge Sheedy in her complete and detailed written opinion. 

If you receive child support here in New Jersey and your child soon shall begin college, please call my law firm today.