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When Does A Parent Have To Pay Child Support Under New Jersey Law?

From the date that the Family Part, Superior Court of New Jersey provides notice upon the parent seeking child support filing for child support. In other words, the lawyers at our law firm understand that child support shall not be retroactive past this date as a matter of law. This New Jersey Appellate Decision provides an excellent example of how child support matters and retroactivity are handled by a judge of a child support hearing officer. As even child support can become quite complex, the following is this lawyer’s take on this recent case.

In Dressner v. Dressner, the parties were married in 1994. There were four children born of the marriage, who were ages nineteen, eighteen, fifteen and fifteen at the time of this decision. The parties divorced in 2009 and entered into a property settlement agreement (“PSA”), which is an agreement that provides for the separation of the parties’ assets. In the PSA, the parties agreed that Mr. Dressner would pay Mrs. Dressner $3,333 per month in alimony for ten years. The parties also agreed that they would share equal parenting time of their four children, and that Mr. Dressner would pay $277 per month in child support. At the time the parties entered into the PSA, Mr. Dressner was earning $198, 184 per year as a vice president of marketing, and Mrs. Dressner was earning $64,780 per year.

In August 2012, Mr. Dressner lost his job. Mr. Dressner took a job with a family-owned business when he was unsuccessful in finding similar employment to his previous position. At his new place of employment, Mr. Dressner was earning approximately $85,000 per year. Mr. Dressner was also earning about $8,500 per year on the side from his consulting business. On December 13, 2013, Mr. Dressner informed Mrs. Dressner that he intended to suspend his alimony and child support obligations. On January 12, 2014, Mr. Dressner filed a motion with the court to suspend his obligations, as well as other relief. Mrs. Dressner opposed Mr. Dressner’s motion and made a cross-motion seeking attorney’s fees. On February 14, 2014, the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey found that Mr. Dressner successfully showed a change in circumstances, which is the standard to modify alimony. The Family Part also allowed discovery and set a date for a plenary hearing, which occurs when material facts of a case are in dispute and the parties’ testimony is needed to decide such issues. Lastly, the court ordered that any child support modification should be retroactive to the date that Mr. Dressner filed for modification.

In late 2014 and early 2015, the court conducted the plenary hearing, which was held over three days. At the hearing, both Mr. and Mrs. Dressner testified, as did Mr. Dressner’s employment expert and Mr. Dressner’s aunt, who ran the family business where Mr. Dressner worked. On July 16, 2015, the Family Part judge issued an order denying both parties’ request for attorney’s fees, but granted Mr. Dressner’s motion to terminate his alimony obligation, effective July 16, 2015. The judge found that Mr. Dressner lost his job in 2012, adequately tried to find comparable employment, and eventually took a position with a family business. The judge also found that Mr. Dressner was now earning about $93,500 per year while Mrs. Dressner was earning about $131,000 per year. The judge, therefore, terminated Mr. Dressner’s alimony obligation, but made the termination effective as of July 16, 2015, after considering the “equities,” or fairness. The judge’s order also denied Mr. Dressner’s motion to terminate his child support obligation.

On February 29, 2016, the Family Part judge addressed Mr. Dressner’s motion to terminate his child support obligation, and issued child support guidelines. Although the judge did not terminate Mr. Dressner’s child support obligation, he did modify it. After carefully considering the equities and fairness to the parties, the judge lowered Mr. Dressner’s child support obligation from $277 per month to $82.33 per month, also effective July 16, 2015. The judge did not adjust child support for controlled expenses, such as clothing, schoolbooks, and supplies. The judge also found that Mrs. Dressner should be the parent of primary residence, meaning the children would live with her, since the children’s school is in the district where Mrs. Dressner lived.

On appeal, Mr. Dressner argued that the Family Part erred by not modifying child support for controlled expenses and by making Mrs. Dressner the parent of primary residence. Mr. Dressner also argued that the court erred by not awarding attorney’s fees, not terminating child support as of the date the motion was filed, and not retroactively terminating his alimony obligation. The New Jersey Appellate Division rejected Mr. Dressner’s arguments and agreed with the lower court, affirming its decision.

The Appellate Division noted that its review of the lower court’s decision is limited, and that the modification of alimony is up to the Family Part judge’s discretion. The Appellate Division also reviews a modification of child support motion for abuse of discretion. The court noted that it would not reverse the Family Part’s decision on alimony and child support obligations unless the evidence demonstrates that the decision was unfair and unjust. Similarly, the Appellate Division must defer to the factual findings of the lower court, which are supported by sufficient and reliable evidence.

The Appellate Division found that N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.23a deals with the effective date of a modification of a child support obligation. N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.23a states that child support will not be retroactively modified except for the period during which the application for modification is pending, but only from the mailing date of the motion. The court stated that the statute’s plain language forbids the retroactive modification of child support prior to the motion’s mailing date; however, there is no statute forbidding the retroactive modification of an alimony obligation. The Appellate Division stated that retroactivity for an alimony obligation is up to the trial judge’s discretion. The Appellate Division found that the lower court’s order modifying child support did not violate N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.23a because the modification’s effective date was July 16, 2015, which is after January 12, 2014, when the motion was filed. The court similarly found that the lower court did not err by setting the effective date for the modification of alimony as July 16, 2015 because setting the effective date for alimony modification is up to the discretion of the lower court judge.

Furthermore, the Appellate Division held that trial judge did not abuse his discretion by failing to award Mr. Dressner attorney’s fees because there is credible evidence supporting the trial judge’s decision. Also, the Appellate Division found that the record indicated that both Mr. and Mrs. Dressner acted in good faith pursuing their claims. Therefore, the Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the lower court, holding that there was no abuse of discretion by the lower court judge.

If you or a loved one is facing a child support case, please contact our office today.