Michael Strahan is a retired Hall of Fame football player and now a host of the popular morning news show, Good Morning America. However, he and his wife divorced after a notoriously messy trial in 2006 and was ordered to pay $18,000 per month in child support. However on appeal, the New Jersey Appellate Division reversed and lowered this amount as the Court found some of her claimed expenses (such as a nanny for her 10 ten day vacation to Jamaica) should have been excluded. The Court also found that Ms. Strahan also had a legal obligation to help support the children of their marriage. Following please find this lawyer’s analysis of this case and how child support in New Jersey is determined for the rich and famous.
In Strahan v. Strahan, the parties began dating in October 1994. The parties moved in together in 1995 and married on July 18, 1999. Prior to the marriage, the parties agreed to sign a prenuptial agreement. Twin daughters were born of the marriage on October 28, 2004. During the marriage, the father was a football player with the New York Giants. The mother worked as a cosmetics company manager and model, earning approximately $70,000 per year before quitting her job when the parties moved in together. On March 14, 2005, the complaint for divorce was filed. The parties agreed to share joint legal custody of their daughters, meaning all, important decisions, such as health and education, would be made by both parties. The parties also agreed that the mother would have primary residential custody of the twins, meaning that the girls would live mainly with the mother. In June and July 2006, the parties litigated the matter and, on July 20, 2006, a dual judgment of divorce was entered. On January 12, 2007, an amended judgment of divorce was entered discussing equitable distribution, disability insurance for the father, child support, the legitimacy of the marriage, and attorney’s fees.
On appeal, the father argued that the equitable distribution of the parties’ assets exceeded the amount the mother was entitled to under the prenuptial agreement; the trial court incorrectly calculated child support and failed to make the necessary conclusions of law regarding the child support award; the trial court was wrong to require the father to pay ninety-one percent of the child support obligation; the trial court was wrong to require the father to maintain a $7.5 million disability police; and the court was wrong to award the mother attorney’s fees. Before trial, the parties agreed to settle the equitable distribution issue and an order was entered regarding equitable distribution on July 11, 2008.
The New Jersey Appellate Division stated that parents have a requirement to support their children, and where the parties are financially able to support their children, the children are entitled to financial benefits. In determining child support, the Appellate Division stated that there are ten factors to consider, including the needs of the child and the income of the parents.
Additionally, courts should consider each parent’s standard of living, the ability of each parent to earn income, the child’s educational capacity, the earning ability of the child, the age and health of the child and parents, any other child support obligations, and any other relevant factors. The Appellate Division also stated that if the combined income of the parents exceeds $187,200 per year, the guidelines should be applied up to $187,200 and an additional award should be granted based on the family income and child support factors. The court noted that the purpose of the guidelines is the best interest of the children.
In cases where ability to pay is not an issue because the parents have a high income, the main focus turns to the reasonable needs of the children. The Appellate Division explained that the reasonable needs of the children must be discussed in the context of the parties’ standard of living. The court noted that infant children require less than teenagers, and that high-income families present special issues when determining the needs of the child. The Appellate Division stated that there must be a balance between lifestyle and values, and the main priority is on the best interests of the child. The court also explained that the parent of primary residential custody cannot be benefitted by a child support award more than what is considered incidental, especially when the custodial parent is not entitled to alimony.
The Appellate Division stated that the trial court found the mother and children’s standard of living to be $630,000 per year, but the trial court did not determine which expenses belonged to the children and which belonged solely to the mother. Furthermore, the trial court found that under the guidelines, child support was $35,984 per year with a supplemental need of $200,000 per year, totaling $235,984 per year in child support. The trial court did not attribute income to the mother, and found that she received $10.5 million in liquid assets and had monthly assets totaling $52,500 per month. The trial court also found that the father’s income post-divorce was $5.87 million in 2006; therefore, the father was ordered to pay $214,745 per year, in child support. The mother only had to contribute nine percent to the total child support amount while the father’s obligation was ninety-one percent.
The Appellate Division agreed with the father that the trial court did not make the specific factual findings necessary to justify awarding supplemental child support. The court stated that the trial court did not determine the actual expenses of the children. The Appellate Division found that some of the expenses claimed by the mother should have been excluded, such as the ten-day vacation to Jamaica for the nanny or the diamond jewelry for the children’s grandmother or the $30,000 worth of annual landscaping. The Appellate Division also stated that the trial court failed to determine what the expenses the mother listed actually covered. Additionally, the court stated that the trial court failed to take into consideration the fact that the children were infants when the parties separated, so there really was no standard of living. The Appellate Division stated that the trial court failed to consider the father’s right to decide the proper lifestyle of his children.
Additionally, the Appellate Division agreed that the trial court failed by not attributing any income to the mother. The court explained that since a child support award is based on the parents’ income, a parent’s income can be fixed if the court finds that the parent is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed. In determining whether a parent in voluntarily underemployed or unemployed, courts must consider the earning capacity of the parent, the reason for the underemployment or unemployment, the availability of other income, and the ages and child-care options of the children. If the court finds that there is no sufficient reason for the underemployment or unemployment of either parent, the court can attribute income to a parent, including income in accordance with the parent’s previous occupation. The Appellate Division stated that the trial court did not attribute any income to the mother because it was decided the mother would raise the children and be a homemaker; however, the Appellate Division stated that the mother’s celebrity status likely enhanced her employment opportunities and there was no evidence to support the finding that the mother was unemployed at the father’s request since the children were infants at the time of the parties’ separation and had nannies to care for them. The Appellate Division reversed the child support award and remanded the case back to the trial court to impute income to the mother and explain and adjust the child support award.
The Appellate Division also found that the fact that the father did not bring up the issue of the disability insurance does not prohibit him from challenging it later. The Appellate Division stated that the trial court required the father to maintain a $7.5 million disability insurance policy, but the father presented evidence at trial showing that he attempted to obtain disability insurance but was denied due to his age and injuries. The Appellate Division found that there was not enough evidence in the record to support the trial court’s finding that the father was required to maintain a $7.5 million disability insurance policy, especially when he was required already to maintain a $4 million life insurance policy. Furthermore, the court found that the father’s retirement from football makes the issue of disability insurance a moot point.
Lastly, the Appellate Division stated that a court can award attorney’s fees in a divorce action so long as it considers the financial situation of the parties, the ability of each party to pay, the reasonableness of the parties, the extent of fees owed, previous awarded fees, and previous fees paid to attorneys, among others. However, the Appellate Division noted that the parties in this case had an agreement, which stated that each party shall pay their own attorney’s fees during and after litigation. The Appellate Division stated that it will only reverse a trial court’s award of attorney’s fees when there was a clear abuse of discretion. In this case, the Appellate Division found that the trial court abused its discretion by failing to reconsider the father’s motion because the parties’ prenuptial agreement indicated that each party shall pay their own attorney’s fees during and after the divorce. Additionally, the court found that the father made his motion for reconsideration in good faith.
Ultimately, the Appellate Division reversed in part and remanded in part the decision of the trial court. The Appellate Division reversed the child support award and remanded the case to the trial court to make factual findings regarding the children’s child support needs. Also, the court found that the trial court was wrong to require the father to obtain disability insurance since it was unreasonable, and now, a moot point. Lastly, the Appellate Division found that the trial court was wrong to deny the father’s motion for reconsideration regarding attorney’s fees since the parties’ prenuptial agreement contracted for attorney’s fees.
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