Our children are so often the center of our worlds… And as parents, we so often want only the best for them. We want them to be happy, secure, cared for, and provided for.
Unfortunately, our children can also be the innocent victims of some very adult problems…
When divorce is the right option for you (or the option you were dealt), how do you make sure your children continue to be cared for in the best way possible? And how do NJ courts handle child support issues?
What do you need to know about child support in NJ?
We are going to cover all of that, and more.
What is Child Support in New Jersey?
Child support in NJ is a mandated process that makes sure the children of separated parents are financially supported so they can continue to thrive despite the circumstances.
Put another way, child support exists to make sure that the children still have clothes to wear, food to eat, and proper healthcare, regardless of the interpersonal issues between their parents. As far as NJ courts are concerned, the needs of children who have been innocently thrust into difficult circumstances, is paramount.
That is why child support is often one of the biggest holdups during a divorce proceeding and one of the most contested aspects of divorce agreements.
New Jersey Child Support Guidelines and Calculations
Just like any other process involving money and the government, there are a whole slew of guidelines that control child support. Learning these “rules” puts you one step closer to fully understanding who has to pay child support in NJ, how it is calculated, how long child support needs to be paid, how the agreement can change, and what happens if the support goes unpaid.
Understanding custody and how it applies to child support
Before we can get to who has to pay and how much, we need to have a discussion about custody.
In NJ, a child custody arrangement will be one of three types: joint legal custody, sole legal and physical custody, and shared legal and physical custody.
Joint Legal Custody
Joint legal custody is the preferred child custody arrangement in New Jersey, and also the most common. In this arrangement, each parent maintains legal decision-making power over the welfare, medical, and educational decisions of their children. This arrangement also means both parents can maintain an active and fulfilling relationship with their child(ren).
Typically, the child primarily lives with one parent (primary custodial parent) and the other parent (non-custodial parent) can be an alternate location. The primary custodial parent is responsible for the day-to-day decisions (what clothes to wear, meals, etc.) and is expected to make decisions that are in the best interest of the child(ren). When larger decisions need to be made, both parents have equal say in the matter.
To be clear: legal custody refers to the legal ability to exercise a degree of control over the child’s future. Both short term and long term. Physical custody refers to the ability to spend time with the child unsupervised. This can also be called parenting time.
Sole Legal and Physical Custody
This arrangement is rather rare, since it means that the children will not have a relationship with the non-custodial parent. Except in cases of extreme abuse or danger to the children, NJ courts recognize that it isn’t generally in the best interests of the child(ren) to cut one parent out of the equation completely.
In sole legal and physical custody arrangements, the custodial parents maintains full control over the child(ren) at all times and has sole decision-making power. They live with that parent and that parent fully controls every decision for that child (big or small).
Shared Legal and Physical Custody
This arrangement is generally the most preferred arrangement for parents, since it means the child(ren) spend equal amounts of time living with each parent. This differs from joint legal custody, where the child primarily lives with one parent.
These arrangements can be set up with alternating weeks or two-week switches, where the child(ren) spend one (or two) weeks living with one parent before switching to the other.
Custody and who has to pay child support
Now that we understand custodial vs. non-custodial parent, who pays who child support should be a bit easier to understand.
The custodial parent (the parent the child physically lives with) is the parent primarily responsible for feeding, clothing, and generally taking care of that child. This is pretty easy to understand: if a child is living in your house, that child needs things to live, like food and clothes. Those things cost money.
These expenses are generally not incurred by the non-custodial parent, since the child does not primarily live there.
So, in cases where the child(ren) primarily reside with one parent (the custodial parent), the non-custodial parent will pay child support to the custodial parent. In this case, the non-custodial parent financially contributes towards the expenses incurred by the parent the child lives with.
In shared legal and physical custody cases, both parents can choose to forgo child support discussions (or arguments) since they will be equally sharing the financial burden of raising their children.
How is child support calculated in New Jersey?
As far as NJ courts are concerned, child support should best approximate the level of financial support the child would have if the family remained intact. In other words, the amount of money both parents would normally be spending to support their child if the divorce never occurred.
This is formally known as the Income Shares Method and is based on the assumption that in intact families, parental resources are typically pooled for child rearing. So each child receives a roughly proportionate amount of money from each parent.
To calculate child support, the courts take the combined income of both parents and they apply that amount to a complex algorithm outlined in the New Jersey Rules of Court Appendix IX-A, Considerations in the Use of Child Support Guidelines. This algorithm is based on deep research conducted by the New Jersey Child Support Institute (NJCSI) at Rutgers University.
NJ Child Support Guidelines Calculations
In short, the Guidelines are based on a combination of the massive data sets collected by the U.S. Department of Labor (about how much money most people spend on certain aspects of child raising), and research conducted in NJ by the NJCSI. The goal of the Guidelines is to help the courts understand how much it generally costs to raise a child in NJ.
Naturally, each case is entirely unique, but the courts can’t exactly reinvent the calculation wheel for every case. So the Guidelines are the best place to start.
What expenses do the guidelines take into account?
Attorney Note: The following is drawn directly from the Guidelines and is meant for informational purposes only. This is not meant to be construed as a full and complete list, nor is it considered a legal opinion.
- Housing – This is a broad category and includes many things related to the general term “housing”. Items such as mortgage payments, insurance, rent, repairs, maintenance, utilities, etc. This category also includes the items that are generally used in the home like furniture, cleaning supplies, computers, linens, etc. Refer to the Child Support Guidelines for the full list.
- Food – This category is fairly straightforward. The one item specifically noted is alcoholic beverages are not included (which would make sense).
- Clothing – All children’s clothing, shoes, alterations, dry-cleaning, etc. Also includes jewelry worn by the child(ren) and diapers.
- Transportation – Another broad category, this includes most things related to the family automobile, including maintenance, fluids, and insurance. The initial purchase price of an automobile is not included, however. Refer to the Child Support Guidelines for the full list.
- Unreimbursed Health Care Expenses Up To And Including $250 Per Child Per Year – This includes medical and dental expenses, non-prescription drugs, medical services and equipment. The cost to include a child on a parent’s medical insurance is not included.
- Entertainment – Including most things related to recreational sports (equipment, fees, memberships, tickets, etc.) More notably this also covers recording/photographing the child at events, and the processing of the film/images.
- Miscellaneous Items – This category covers most inconsequential expenses not clearly specified in the earlier categories.
When does child support end in NJ?
In NJ, child support payments typically end when the child receiving support reaches the age of 19, which is the age of emancipation in NJ. There are, however, some unique circumstances that were just signed into law that may extend child support payments to the age of 23, including disability and some education situations.
Just like with many other aspects of divorce, the courts will take each unique situation into consideration when making recommendations or issuing orders.
Do child support payments just end?
Six months before the supported child’s 19th birthday, both parents receive a Notice of Proposed Child Support Obligation Termination from the court. In that notice are instructions on how the custodial parent can request child support payments to continue. At that point, it is up to the custodial parent to notify the court of the request.
If there is no response from either parent, a second Notice of Proposed Child Support Obligation Termination will be mailed to both three months before the supported child turns 19. Just like the first, that notice will inform both parents of the proposed date of termination and what needs to be done to continue support.
If there is no response to either the first or second notice, payments are automatically terminated on the day of the child’s 19th birthday.
Important note: If the non-custodial parent is in arrears at the time of the support ending, then the account will remain active until all arrears are paid in full.
Now, if the custodial parent petitions the court for a continuation of support, the court will notify the non-custodial parent of the continuation (assuming it is granted). At that time, the non-custodial parent has the opportunity to appeal the decision.
Changing a NJ Child Support Agreement
In the event that circumstances change, either parent can petition the court for a Modification of Agreement.