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

When Lowering Child Support, What State Has Jurisdiction?

If one of the parents still live in the same state where child support was first determined after a divorce, that state retains jurisdiction for any changes to the amount of child support.  As a New Jersey family law attorney, jurisdiction is always the first determination to be made.  If New Jersey retains jurisdiction, then the lawyers at our law firm proceed with determining whether modifying our client’s child support obligation shall be successful in a New Jersey Family Court.  Following is a recent case that illuminates the issue of what state shall here your child support modification case.  

In Nolan v. Gaeckler, ex-wife Patricia Nolan, appealed an order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Atlantic County, that dismissed her motion to increase child support, and establish arrears, due to lack of subject matter jurisdiction. The question of subject matter jurisdiction, basically boils down to, is the court the case is brought in entitled to hear that case.

For a court to have authority to pass judgment on a dispute, it must first have jurisdiction over the parties and over the type of legal issues in the dispute. The first type of jurisdiction is called personal jurisdiction, the other is subject matter jurisdiction. Personal jurisdiction will be found if the people involved in the case are present in the state or are legal resident s of the state in which the lawsuit has been filed, or if the transaction in question has a substantial connection to the state. Subject matter jurisdiction refers to the nature of the claim or controversy. Subject matter jurisdiction is the power of a court to hear particular types of cases. In state court systems, statutes that create different courts generally set boundaries on their subject matter jurisdiction. One state court or another has subject matter jurisdiction of any controversy that can be heard in courts of that state. Some courts specialize in a particular area of the law, such as Family Law. A divorce can be granted only in a court designated to hear matrimonial cases. Sometimes parties dispute what state has the authority and jurisdiction to hear a family law related matter. This was the case in the recent May 12, 2016 New Jersey Appellate Division case of Nolan v. Gaeckler, where mother Patricia Nolan wanted a New Jersey Family Part court to modify the amount of a child support obligation issued by a Family Part court in Georgia. The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that both New Jersey and Georgia have adopted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, and according to the Act a state where a child support obligation is awarded has continuing exclusive jurisdiction to modify any past child support orders issued in that state, as long as one of the parties, still lives in that state. In addition, the appellate panel stated that according to New Jersey Statute 2A:4-30.72(d), New Jersey had an obligation to respect Georgia’s jurisdiction. 

In 2004, Patricia Nolan and Randy Gaeckler got divorced in Georgia. The couple had lived in Georgia with their two kids since 1999. Patricia moved to New Jersey with the kids after the divorce, and Randy stayed in Georgia. The Georgia court entered a final judgment of divorce that set child support at $ 3,500 a month. This amount was based on a determination of twenty-four percent of Randy’s gross income, and no income coming from Patricia at all. The court order explained that under Georgia law the appropriate range of income for two children was twenty-three to twenty-eight percent. 

Randy got a court order from the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia in May 2013 that modified his child support obligation. This order would take effect in August 2013. Under Georgia law, the oldest child would become emancipated in August 2013, because she had reached eighteen years old, and graduated from high school. According to the new order, Randy would now be obliged to pay $ 1,831 a month in child support for the younger child. This amount was based on the court’s findings of the parent’s current incomes. 

In October 2014, Patricia filed a motion in New Jersey, in which she claimed that Randy misrepresented his income in 2004. She claimed that his actual income was $ 45,000 more than what he listed. According to this new income amount, she argued that his new monthly child support obligation should actually be $ 4,411.50. Because of the difference between her calculations and the court ordered amount of $ 3,500, Patricia requested that the court issue a new order to compel Randy to pay over $ 109,000 in arrears. In her motion, Patricia ignored the Georgia order that set a new child support amount, entered in August 2013.

Randy admonished the court to dismiss Patricia’s motion. He argued that exclusive, continuing jurisdiction remained in the Georgia courts, thus only a Georgia court could modify the Georgia support order. Judge Mendez of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Atlantic County agreed with him. The judge explained that both New Jersey and Georgia adopted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, and according to the Act Georgia retained continuing exclusive jurisdiction to modify any past child support orders issued in Georgia, as long as one of the parties, in this case Randy, still lived in Georgia. In addition, the judge stated that according to New Jersey Statute 2A:4-30.72(d), New Jersey had an obligation to respect Georgia’s jurisdiction. 

Patricia appealed the decision and tried to avoid the jurisdictional requirement of the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act, by contending that she did not try to modify the 2004 order, instead she merely tried to enforce it, by asking the court to apply the increased income amount to the same support calculation used in 2004. The New Jersey Appellate Division noted that Patricia did not cite any case law to support her argument, nor could the appellate panel find any.

Modification is defined by Georgia law O.C.G.A. § 19-26(a)(4) as a “change in a child support order that affects the amount . . . of the order and modifies, replaces, supersedes, or otherwise is made subsequent to a child support order . . .” The Federal Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act, or 28 U.S.C.A. 1738B(b)(8) has the same definition as well. The New Jersey Appellate Division explained that although New Jersey law has not year implemented an equivalent statutory definition, still the federal and Georgia definition is comparable to this state’s case law on what exactly it means to modify a child support order. The paramount 1980 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Lepis v. Lepis, likens a child support modification to an increase in the amount. Furthermore, in Lepis, 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 support orders upon a showing of changed circumstances. The party seeking modification must demonstrate that changed circumstances have substantially impaired the ability to support himself or herself. This involves the full finding of the dependent spouse’s financial status. Conversely, in the modification of child support the most important factor is the best interest of the children. A prima facie showing in such a case would require evidence that the child’s needs have increased to a level for which the original agreement does not deliver.  

In this case, Patricia tried to change the amount of Randy’s child support obligation that was established by the Georgia court in 2004. The Georgia court conducted a calculation with the twenty-four percent standard, and determined that Randy’s final child support obligation should be in the amount of $ 3,500 dollars every month. The appellate panel found that Patricia’s actions clearly showed that when she tried to increase the amount of that child support obligation, she was seeking to modify the Georgia order. Therefore, the New Jersey Appellate Division held that the issue must be decided in a Georgia Family Part court. 

Please contact my office if you are facing a child support issue.