Edward R. Weinstein, Esq.

If I Go Back To College, May I Have My Child Support Reduced?

No. If you voluntarily become unemployed and go back to college, New Jersey law is clear that this voluntary decision is temporary in nature. Moreover, a judge of the Family Part of the Superior Court of New Jersey shall not relieve a parent of their legal obligation to be responsible for supporting their children when making decisions and changes concerning their occupation. This is another example of why folks should consult with a lawyer (or law firm) who only handles family law related matters before making significant changes to their income or filing an application to reduce their child support.

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Child support is the right of every child, and during my many years of practicing family law I have seen first-hand that New Jersey Family Part courts will enforce a child support obligation in almost any situation. That said, a child support obligation may be modified upon a showing of a valid change of circumstance. One such change of circumstance might be unemployment, but only under certain circumstances. The unemployment must not be voluntary or temporary. A parent with a child support obligation cannot just choose to quit his or her job and expect to no longer have to pay child support. Sometimes people leave their jobs to enroll in college full-time. While a parent attaining a college degree may be beneficial for a child in the future, that does not mean that a parent can just leave his or her job to study, and expect that his or her child support obligation will be terminated. Leaving work to get a degree is a voluntary decision, and is only temporary. Doing so will not relieve a parent of his or her child support obligation.

In Zavaglia v. Bray, father Anthony Zavaglia appealed an order of the Superior Court of New Jersey, Family Part of Mercer County that denied his motion to reduce child support based on the fact that he left his job and enrolled in an online college. The Family Part court denied the motion because his unemployment was voluntary, and temporary. In his appeal, Anthony argued that the Family Part court failed to provide sufficient findings of fact and conclusions of law, and failed to acknowledge that his enrollment in college to promote the best interest of his child was a valid change of circumstance that warranted a reduction in child support.

Anthony Zavaglia and Jacqueline Bray had a son together in 2008. They entered into a consent order in 2012 that established Anthony would pay Jacqueline $ 108 a week in child support, and $ 115.38 a week in day-care costs. A consent order is a type of contract or agreement that is voluntarily and mutually agreed to by a divorcing or divorced couple to resolve financial disputes and obligations that stem from their marriage. Consents orders can cover any numbers of things including the distribution of assets, pensions, and inheritance and the amount of any child support or alimony obligations.

In October of 2013 Anthony started paying significantly less than the consent order required . . ., he lowered the payments to $ 31 a week. In response, Jacqueline filed an application to enforce the consent order and the child support obligation contained within it. She claimed that Anthony told her that he started paying a lower amount because he started a full time program with an online school. Jacqueline argued that Anthony’s choice to stop working was voluntary, and his unemployment was only temporary.

Anthony filed a cross-motion and sought to lower his child support obligation to thirty-one dollars a week. In his certification he did not challenge any of Jacqueline’s allegations about his leave from work to start a program of study in an online college. Instead, he explained that he was working two jobs, part-time for the United Parcel Service, and full-time as an emergency medical dispatcher. He claimed that suddenly realized that his jobs constrained him and that he had no opportunity to grow. In his own words he said, “Because I am now 29 years of age, I believe it is important for me to obtain a degree quickly, so I can jump start a career in law enforcement and/or homeland security and make up for lost time.” Anthony discussed this plan with Jacqueline, and informed her that he would not be able to meet his child support obligation temporarily, but that in the future he would be able to earn more money and pay more support. Regardless of this talk, Anthony recognized that Jacqueline opposed his decision and plan.

The Family Part reviewed both parties’ motions, and issued an order that temporarily reduced Anthony’s child support obligation while the judge reviewed the pertinent case law about how a parent’s choice to start college effects his or her child support obligation. On June 30, 2014, after both parent’s attorneys submitted additional submissions, the judge issued an order that denied Anthony’s cross-motion for a reduction of his child support obligation. The judge explained that the court relied on the paramount 1980 New Jersey Supreme Court case of Lepis v. Lepis, the 2009 New Jersey Appellate Division case of Donnelly v. Donnelly, and the 2007 Mercer County Family Part case of Lissner v Marburger. In consideration of the case law, the Family Part denied Anthony’s motion for reduced child support because his unemployment was voluntary, and leaving his job to start school was a temporary circumstance. Anthony appealed the decision.

The New Jersey Appellate Division started their opinion by stating that an appellate panel’s scope of review of a trial court order is limited. Generally, findings by a trial court are binding on appeal as long as they are supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence. The Supreme Court of New Jersey has stated that because a trial court hears the case, sees and observes the witnesses, and hears them testify it has a better perspective in evaluating the credibility of witnesses. Therefore, a trial courts factual findings and legal conclusions should not be disturbed by a higher court without a showing that they are so manifestly unsupported by or inconsistent with the competent, relevant and reasonably credible evidence as to offend the interests of justice. Moreover, Family Part courts have a special expertise in domestic relations, and appellate courts must give their fact finding special deference.

According to the 2006 New Jersey Appellate Division case of Larbig v. Larbig, the decision of whether a child support obligation may be modified due to a claim of changed circumstances rests within the Family Part judge’s discretion. Every modification motion is scrutinized under the specific facts of the case, and the New Jersey Appellate Division has to recognize the broad discretion that New Jersey law gives to trial judges who regularly deal with these matters. The New Jersey Appellate Division will not change a Family Part court’s judgment on child support obligations, unless it is clear that the Family Part abused its discretion, did not consider all of the applicable legal principle, or if the appellate panel is satisfied that the factual findings are mistaken, or that the decision could not have been reasonably reached on the credible evidence in the record after reviewing the totality of all the evidence on a whole. When the issue is about child support, there must also be a consideration of the child’s best interest in addition to the afore-mentioned legal principles.

The New Jersey Appellate Division applied these standards and found that Anthony’s arguments lacked sufficient merit to warrant a discussion, and affirmed the order denying a reduction in child support for the same reason the Family Part court did. The appellate panel made sure to add that Anthony failed to offer any reasonable proof as to why he should not have to pay his child support obligation. For more information on this issue, please contact my office today.