Thursday, January 08, 2009

What is Reasonable?

In what is known as "high income" child support cases in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the court first determines the presumptive minimum of child support. The court calculates the presumptive minimum by figuring what would be the highest support amount under the highest income amount listed in the Child Support Guidelines. If the income of the parents in the case exceed that amount, the court then determines what would be a reasonable addition to child support.

Recently, in New Jersey, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court, affirmed a trial court Order of child support in a "high income" case. The name of the case is Kristen Cardell v. Patrick Kirby, Docket No. A-1398-07T3. In this matter, it appears that a married man who resided in the State of New York with his two children had a child with a New Jersey woman during a separation. By the time the child was born, the pair had broken up. She requested child support in the amount of $4,000 per week plus other benefits. ($4,000 per week amounts to $17,332 per month).

While the matter was pending, the father made voluntary child support payments of $2,600 per month. The Opinion does not specifically state where the defendant came up with that number but that figure is slightly more than what would be the presumptive minimum under the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, so his lawyer most likely advised him that would be the minimum he would be ordered to pay.

The trial court reviewed the testimony and papers submitted by both parties, noting that the child’s reasonable needs appear to have been met with the child support the defendant was paying. The trial judge added an amount to compensate the mother for child care expenses and set the defendant’s child support obligation at $2,793 per month, a fraction of what the mother had requested.

Mother appealed, complaining that the trial court had not appropriately analyzed the factors relevant to a "high income" case. The Appellate court reviewed the law in this area, specifically noting that "a trial court’s decision . . . is discretionary and entitled to deference, absent an abuse of discretion, lack of support in the evidence, or misapplication of controlling legal principals." Cardell v. Kirby. This legal principal is important for anyone involved in a child support matter because it enforces how important the testimony and papers submitted to a trial judge become in the decision. Generally, trial courts are vested with broad discretion and absent a serious abuse of that discretion, an appellate court will not disturb a trial court’s findings. Accordingly, an appeal is not simply a second bite at the apple.

In this case, the court went through the various theories regarding children of high income earners and noted how, in calculating child support, the amount must reflect the opportunities available for the child due to the parents’ means but also the reasonable needs of the child. The law attempts to prevent an inappropriate windfall to either the child or the custodial parent. While it is common, and almost expected, that there be some incidental benefit from the child support to the custodial parent, the amount cannot overreach to the point where it becomes unreasonable.

In this case, the trial court paid strict attention to the expenses submitted by the mother and found that the child’s reasonable needs were met. The appellate court noted that this does not preclude the mother from applying for an increase when there is a change in circumstances, such as a child matures or needs tuition, camp or more funds for her teenage years. Notably, in this case the child was 9 months old so the court found that the child support, in addition to what plaintiff could provide, and the extras provided by father, including health insurance, contribution to a college savings account, a life insurance policy and a significant contribution to unreimbursed expenses sufficiently met the needs of the child.

Courts pay careful attention to the age of the child and what is reasonable. Obviously, a baby has very different needs than a school-age child, and a child approaching high school. Plaintiffs in these types of cases should be careful not to overreach when advising the court of their expenses.


Anonymous said...

What you fail to mention is that the father wants nothing to do with his child... Regardless of "whats reasonable" or not financially, not being in your childs life is WRONG

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