By Jeralyn Lawrence | Law Law Firm, AAML NJ Immediate Past President
In New Jersey, child support guidelines were established to ensure consistency in child support awards and to provide courts with the financial information needed to issue appropriate child support orders. The guidelines provide a framework for courts to use when making child support determinations for people whose incomes fall within the guideline amounts. Currently, the child support guidelines apply to parents with combined net incomes ranging from $8,840 per year to $187,200 per year.
While judges can deviate from the guideline amounts to account for a child's extraordinary needs, most child support decisions typically adhere to the guideline amounts. However, the determination of appropriate child support amounts differs when the parents have a net combined income exceeding $187,200 per year. Here is how courts make child support determinations when the parents' incomes are above the child support guidelines.
Understanding the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines
The New Jersey child support guidelines were initially adopted in 1986 and can be found at Child Support Guidelines, Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A (2017). They were established following the federal government's passage of the Child Support Enforcement Amendments, which are codified at 42 U.S.C. § 651. These amendments provided federal matching funds to help states enforce child support orders. In 2007, the guidelines were amended to cap combined parental net income at $187,200.
Under R. 5:6A, the child support guidelines provide a rebuttable presumption that the appropriate child support order should be the guideline amount. However, courts can deviate from the guideline amounts for good cause when the guidelines are inappropriate in a specific case. When New Jersey courts deviate from the guidelines, they must specify their reasoning for doing so per the decision in Ordukaya v. Brown, 357 N.J. Super. 231, 241 (App. Div. 2003).
While the guidelines provide a rebuttable presumption of child support for parents whose combined net incomes fall within the guideline amounts, they do not address couples with net incomes exceeding the maximum income contemplated by the guidelines. While some people might believe that they can simply extrapolate the child support amount by using a similar factor as what is used under the guidelines, courts have held that such an extrapolation is inappropriate.
In Walton v. Visgil, 248 N.J. Super. 642 (App. Div. 1991), the court found that extrapolating the guideline calculations to parents with high incomes is inappropriate. Instead, courts should take into consideration both the child's basic support needs and any extraordinary expenses to determine the appropriate amount to award.
In many divorce cases involving children with high-net-worth parents, child support issues typically turn on the children's extracurricular activities and extraordinary expenses. Courts recognize that children with high-income parents deserve to share in their parents' good fortune and to enjoy a standard of living in line with that. In Zazzo v. Zazzo, 245 N.J. Super. 124 (App. Div. 1990), the court noted that these types of additional expenses often exceed what might be contemplated as a part of the basic support obligation.
Several types of additional expenses that might be considered under the decision in Isaacson v. Isaacson, 348 N.J. Super. 560 (App. Div. 2002) include the following:
- Private school tuition
- Private tutoring
- Summer camps
- Art/music lessons
- Sports camps
- Clothing/incidentals for teenagers
- Insured vehicle for teens who drive
- Costs for studying abroad
- Home renovations for the primary custodial parent to have a more presentable home for the children
- Establishment of a trust for the children to share in the high-income parent's good fortune beyond a 529 plan
The child support award should be determined by the child's interests rather than by the parent's interests. The determination is also case-specific and can vary based on the circumstances of both the child and the parents. For example, in Loro v. Del Colliano, 354 N.J. Super. 212 (App. Div. 2002), the appellate court remanded the case to the trial court to determine the extent of appropriate home renovations. However, it did uphold the trial court's award of cellphone costs for the child and the cost of Philadelphia Flyers season tickets.
If a child is attending college, other considerations will be important, including the location and cost of the school, the child's tuition, books, and housing expenses, any scholarships that might have been awarded, and any expenses the parents have been providing for to the college-aged child for transportation, cellphone bills, entertainment, and others.
In many cases, divorce attorneys will begin with the child support guidelines as a basis. However, instead of extrapolating the guidelines amount from $187,200 up to the amount of the parents' combined net income, the calculation will instead be case-specific and include consideration of all of the extracurriculars and extraordinary expenses of the child in light of the high-income parent's good fortune. It should be noted that an award of child support should not be used as a substitute for spousal support.
If a parent's spousal support ends, the court will not modify the child support amount higher to replace it, but the end of alimony may trigger a review of child support. Even for high-income parents whose incomes exceed the child support guidelines, child support is meant to provide the child with the standard of living appropriate for his or her position as a child of a high-income parent instead of enabling the lower-earning spouse to enjoy a higher-income lifestyle.
Determining the appropriate amount of child support for above-the-guidelines cases can be complex. Attorneys should always try to negotiate reasonable amounts on behalf of their clients that take into account all of the child's extraordinary and extracurricular expenses. In most cases, mediation or the collaborative process might provide a way for parents to reach a decision outside of an expensive court battle. In most cases, families are happier when they can reach a negotiated agreement rather than leaving the decision up to the court. Focusing on the best interests of the child and meeting the needs of the child generally leads to a successful resolution.