Decisions on Child Support for High Income Parents and Children in NJ
Explore with Our Attorneys the Child Support Nuances in High-Income Scenarios in New Jersey
Child support is often contentious for any divorcing couple with minor children. The best-intentioned parents know that children need money for life’s basics, but how much more they need is a matter of parental values and opinions. The law considers a child’s best interests and reasonable needs in ordering support. It also allows the child to remain in the lifestyle they are accustomed to, and their parents enjoy, given their parents’ financial resources.
The family law attorneys at The Montanari Law Group represent clients in all areas of family law, including high-income child support disputes. We have closely worked with clients in Montclair, North Bergen, Hoboken, South Orange, Montvale, Franklin Lakes, and nearby towns in Passaic, Hudson, Bergen, and Essex Counties. Contact our office so that we may discuss the alternatives that would be suitable for your particular case. Call us at 973-233-4396 or fill out our online contact form today to receive a free initial consultation to discuss your high income family child support matter, or any other family-related issue, such as divorce, child custody, equitable distribution, or alimony.
When NJ Child Support Guidelines Fall Short
New Jersey developed guidelines that systematize child support figures based on the laws, parents’ income, and other factors to enable uniformity in child support orders. However, the guidelines only calculate a bottom line, minimum support but not the uppermost limit. When one or both parents have high incomes, child support numbers skew beyond a child’s best interests and reasonable needs. It is up to the court to delicately balance support needs against support windfalls to children and primary custodial parents.
NJ Court Intervention in High-Income Child Support Decisions
The guidelines in New Jersey only cover annual income up to $187,200.00. After that, it is up to a judge to determine when supplemental support is necessary. A court can make a support order to fit each situation. Reviewing each family’s unique circumstances, a judge can set the guideline child support amount, determine who pays support, and require payment security, such as a trust, to guarantee the paying party pays medical, educational, and other foreseeable expenses. The court also has the means to ensure parties obey support orders, including appointing a referee over the payor’s assets. By law, both parties are responsible for supporting their children. Additionally, the court may order one party with substantially more wealth and means to pay the other party’s legal and expert fees upon the needy party’s application. In ordering fees, the court examines the income of the parties and their good or bad faith actions in the divorce.
Factors Considered by the Court to Balance Its Decisions for Higher Earners
N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 contains the ten factors courts use in determining child support. They include the child’s needs, the standard of living of the parties, and the financial circumstances of the parents, such as their income and assets. The court also considers earning capacity determined by a party’s education and experience, childcare responsibilities, the health of the child and parents, educational needs, a child’s earning ability, court-ordered support for other children, debts, and assets of the child and parents, and anything else relevant.
Those factors are the framework for child support and underlie the guideline calculations. However, guidelines apply only to income up to $187,200.00 annually. A judge must weigh the N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 factors and subtler issues for income above that amount when a court orders supplemental child support for parental income above that threshold guideline amount. To arrive at an amount, a court examines a custodial parent’s budget detailing their children’s reasonable needs in the present and future.
Thus, with high-income families, the court primarily considers the children’s reasonable needs, given the parents’ standard of living. However, the court made the important distinction that they must balance children’s practical needs without awarding a windfall or hindering parenting philosophy, values, and choices to raise children in a lifestyle they deem appropriate. Further, the court balances the children’s needs in the context of the parents’ lifestyle without giving them too much.
Calculating Supplemental Child Support for High Income Families
To calculate a supplemental support award, the court must determine the children’s needs, the parents’ lifestyle, the children’s age and medical conditions, each parent’s income or earning ability, and the debts of each parent. After reviewing each family’s situation, the foundational question is how much money it takes to raise a child. The court weighs various concerns, such as how each parent spends money and the family’s child-rearing philosophy. The court has the discretion to order an additional amount, but as case law establishes, it cannot be an arbitrary amount.
Examples of Extracurricular Activities
A young child of three may not play sports or take music lessons, but they may in the future. They may go to summer camps, vacations, or private schools. Beyond the basics, such as food, clothing, and shelter, child support orders could factor in daycare expenses, extracurricular activities, private school tuition, tutoring, clothing, medical fees, vacations, transportation, music or art lessons, study abroad, family car, home upgrades, and other items.
When Child Support Awards Exceed Reasonable Needs and Family Lifestyle
In Strahan vs. Strahan, the court reviewed a child support order that the plaintiff, a professional football player, had to pay. The support order was $35,984.00 with a supplemental $200,000.00, 91% of which was the plaintiff’s responsibility. No income was attributed to the defendant, the mother of their twin toddlers, though she claimed that she voluntarily stayed home according to the plaintiff’s wishes while they were together. She also had significant assets from the divorce that allowed her nannies, clothing allowances, and other nonessentials. Before marriage, she earned $70,000.00 a year as a model and manager when the parties met. The plaintiff contends the lower court erred in calculating child support, specifically paying 91% of supplemental support.
The appellate court reviewed the trial court’s order and first noted that the court did not detail the basis for the award, which was an error at the outset. Then the appellate court examined the defendant’s budgeted expenses and insinuated the defendant had claimed expenses that would benefit herself though framed with the children’s needs in mind. One example is an excessive clothing allowance that supported a new outfit each time the toddlers visited their father.
The law is clear that both parents must support their children, and children may partake of the financial benefits of their parents. So, a parent’s economic achievements can factor into a child support calculation. The court then listed the N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a) child support factors. It also noted the law dictates that a combined net income of $187,200.00 a year for both parents requires the court to use guidelines up to that amount and then use their discretion for awarding supplemental child support based on the interests of the children and other factors.
In Strahan, the court ordered a supplemental $200,000.00 need for the children based on the defendant’s budget. However, there was no distinction between which expenses were for the children and which for the mother. By law, the custodial parent has the burden of proving the reasonableness of the children’s costs. Moreover, the court noted the couple split when the children were a few months old, so their standard of living was unclear.
Further, the appellate court ruled that the lower court should have imputed income to the defendant, given her two college degrees and earning capacity of $70,000.00 a year. The court determined she was voluntarily under or unemployed without a valid reason; therefore, the court could impute income to her. She had nannies for the kids and could work, especially with her status as a celebrity’s wife. The court reversed the support order and remanded the case for the trial court to impute income and configure the valid needs of the children.
The court noted that even if the custodial parent benefits from such a support award, that is acceptable, so long as it is not overreaching, as in trumping up child support needs for the parent’s benefit.
Parental Income as a Key Element to Award Child Support
The above case highlights a few fundamental principles in high-income divorces. Parental income beyond the guideline threshold may justify supplemental child support when the requesting party supplies reasonable needs for the children, considering the N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23 factors. Another key takeaway is the court’s requirement to impute income to a parent who is unemployed or underemployed without valid reasons. A court imputes income after reviewing the party’s experience, skills, education, previous salary, and the average pay for someone in their profession.
However, the case also informs judges that the additional amount cannot be arbitrary. The child’s needs are distinct from the custodial parent’s needs or wants, and proof of need is necessary. Also, a court must detail its findings to avoid an adverse ruling or remand. Detailed documentation is required to show the child’s requirements and the parents’ lifestyle. Then, without overindulging the children or giving a windfall to the custodial parent, a court may order supplemental support. In addition, the court confirmed that parents have a right to raise their children in the lifestyle they deem fit. The court should not infringe on high-earning parents’ parental options.
Contact a Child Support Attorney for Help with Your Case in Hackensack NJ
The appropriate child support order is critical. Child support affects the future of both parents and children, so it must be grounded in current and future realities. The custodial parent should have a sufficient award, and yet, a high-earning parent should be able to pay the support without sacrificing their child-rearing values and, more importantly, their freedom. Unpaid support can lead to impossible arrears, arrest, driver’s license suspension, and other disasters.
As such, hiring the right family law attorney to enforce your rights is essential to you and your family. At The Montanari Law Group, our experienced family lawyers can advocate for you and your children, ensuring you come to court with accurate data to persuade a judge of the correct child support amount. Contact a family law attorney at our talented firm for assistance with your high-income child support case in Ridgewood, Hackensack, Fort Lee, Prospect Park, Woodland Park, Wyckoff, Essex Fells, Short Hills, Millburn, and across Passaic County, Hudson County, Bergen County, and Essex County, New Jersey. We can be reached immediately at 973-233-4396 to provide you with more details in a free consultation.