As a child support lawyer, I have come across this issue in many cases as car insurance is expensive here in New Jersey, especially for young drivers. In fact, up until recently, the law was not clear as to whether a divorced (or single) parent would be deemed responsible to contribute to their children’s car insurance. Therefore, myself and the other attorney in a divorce or child support case would negotiate the issue, but at the end of the day the parents had to voluntarily agree to make automobile insurance payments on behalf of their unemancipated children. However, in light of a brand new case, the lawyers at my law firm shall now be advising folks that they are legally responsible and this amount can be included in New Jersey Child Support Guidelines.
In Fichter v. Fichter, the Honorable Judge Jones of the Superior Court of Ocean County, Family Part, reviewed whether car insurance for a minor child should be included in the child support payment or if there should be a separate obligation for it. In 2013, the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines were modified by the State, to include new provisions having to do with the cost of car insurance. These new provisions, however, have only raised more questions about whether when a parent that is already paying child support, to a level sufficient to the guidelines, is also required to contribute to car insurance costs for an unemancipated newly licensed teenage child. There was no case law that answered this question when it presented itself in the Ocean County Family Part court, and the Honorable Judge Jones was left to tackle this issue of first impression. He held that Family Part courts, in their discretion, have the authority to increase or modify guideline-level child support on a fact specific basis, to cover for the extra cost of car insurance for a new teenage driver.
Thomas and Deidre Fichter were married in 1991 and divorced in 2011. In a settlement agreement, the parents mutually agreed to share legal custody of their children, with Deidre being designated as the parent of primary residence. According to the divorce settlement agreement, Thomas would pay Diedre $ 303 a week in child support. This amount was in accordance with New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines.
According to the settlement agreement, the parents also agreed that both of them would share the cost of their son’s car insurance. The at the time the settlement agreement was executed, the son was driving a used 2005 Volvo that was actually under Deidre’s name as a second car she got under the settlement agreement. She drove a 2010 Volvo herself. While the elder son’s car insurance was covered by the settlement agreement, the agreement was silent on where the funding for the younger daughter’s car insurance would come from.
When this issue arose, Megan, the daughter, had just turned seventeen, and like most seventeen year olds, had just gotten her driver’s license. Todd, the older son, was now emancipated. The 2005 Volvo he drove was still in Deidre’s name, and would now be available for Megan to drive. Due to Todd’s emancipation, Thomas’ child support obligation decreased from $ 303 every week to $ 213 every week.
Deidre went to the Superior Court of Ocean County, Family Part for an order directing Thomas to contribute towards the additional cost of Megan’s car insurance, in addition to the guideline-level child support he already paid. Megan’s car insurance would an extra $ 854 a year. According to Deidre, this price was both reasonable and affordable as both parents would contribute towards it.
The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines are part of the New Jersey Court Rules. These same guidelines can be used as a rebuttable presumption to establish and modify child support obligations. The rebuttable presumption in this case means that an award based on the provisions of the guidelines is, generally, presumed to be a correct award of child support. That is, unless the opposing parent can prove the existences of circumstances that would make an award based on the guidelines inappropriate. This inquiry is fact-specific to every case.
On September 1, 2013, the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines were amended after a detailed and comprehensive review by the Supreme Court Family Practice Committee. New provisions were included in the amendments that addressed expenses a parent may incur in giving a car to a new teenage driver. However, these new provisions were not clear whether the cost of insurance, was an appropriate additional expense to guideline-level support. While the report by the Supreme Court Family Practice Committee indicated that the Committee did in fact consider this question, it still did not clearly and conclusively answer the question. Judge Jones explained that because the amendments were still fairly new, and there was little to no case precedent on the issue, the court must address the issue by prioritizing logic, equity, and substance over form, while at the same time applying principles of fairness, reason, and commonsense, and must at all times further the best interests of the child.
According to the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, the child support obligation of a parent of alternative residence, includes all expenses involved with owning a car, including monthly payments for cost, interest charges, motor oil and gas, insurance, repairs, and maintenance. Many who argue that the guidelines already include the cost of car insurance for a new teenage driver, point out that comment 8 includes the word, “insurance,” and thus a literal reading supports the argument at a parent of alternate residence should not contribute additional funds towards a child’s car insurance because, the court has already considered this cost and accounted for it in advance, in the guideline-level child support award. Furthermore, many proponents of this view argue that the word “insurance” includes both the parent’s cost of insurance, and also the additional costs for child once he or she becomes licensed. Judge Jones explained, however, that in reality this would result in the parent of primary residence receiving the same out of money before and after a child got a driver’s license.
Moreover, there are potential economic and financial fairness concerns with such an interpretation of the Child Support Guidelines, both to the child and the parent of primary residence. First, a logical and reasonable interpretation of, “expenses associated with a motor vehicle purchased or leased for the intended primary uses a child subject to the support order,” does not explicitly exclude car insurance. As no one can legally drive a car without insurance, additional insurance for a newly licensed driver, is an absolutely necessary cost related to operating a car, regardless of whether the teenager is driving his own car, or a family car used by other members of the household.
Furthermore, the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines do not explicitly address if “expenses” apply exclusively to costs related to a new car purchase or lease for the newly licensed driver, or whether, “expenses” also includes costs related to a car that one parent already owns, and makes available to the child, for his or her own primary use. Judge Jones, concluded that the second, broader interpretation is the most appropriate and reasonable. Public policy supports providing protection and support of the child’s best interest. In the alternative, even if one could technically interpret the Child Support Guideline-level support to include the insurance cost of a newly licensed driver, the same guidelines also allow Family Part courts to use their authority and discretion to deviate from the guidelines in an effort to come to a fair and just result. The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines are just that . . . merely guidelines, and are not set in stone. Family law judges may deviate from them on a cases by case basis, in the interest of fairness. The Family Part of Ocean County considered the totality of circumstances and found that the insurance policy, even though costly, was an affordable and reasonable expense to both parents, as each of them would contribute towards it. Applying the afore-mentioned legal principles, Judge Jones found that Deidre’s request that both parents share the costs of Megan’s car insurance was reasonable, logical and fair. Deidre’s intent was to protect the child’s best interest by providing her with car insurance, and therefore, appropriate and financially sound. Therefore, the court ordered the parent’s to split their daughter’s car insurance costs equally until such time that she become emancipated.
Please contact my office if you or a loved one faces a child support issue here in New Jersey.