Under New Jersey child support laws the parent of primary residence should not gain extra money via child support due to “incidental” beyond what is necessary for the child to enjoy a lifestyle that they would expect to have due to the high amount of income that the family unit receives. This lawyer now analyzes a paramount case in New Jersey Child Support law for wealthy parents and their children.
In Loro v. Colliano, the mother filed for divorced from her husband after a four-year marriage. The parties had one child born of the marriage, a daughter, born on March 6, 1984. A judgment of divorce was entered on June 13, 1991 after very combative litigation. At the time of the divorce, the father was earning approximately $630,000 per year. The mother was awarded sole custody of the parties’ daughter and the father was ordered to pay the wife $1,500 per month for two years in rehabilitative alimony to make the wife whole again. The father was also ordered to pay $375,000 to the wife in equitable distribution. Lastly, the father was ordered to pay $500 per week in child support.
The parties’ daughter suffered from several physical and emotional illnesses for a number of years, but made progress with her health issues in March 1999. According to the mother, the father rarely saw the parties’ daughter because the father insisted the daughter do things his way. The mother indicated that the parties’ daughter felt emotionally and economically abandoned by the father. However, the father stated that he loved his daughter and that the mother poisoned the parties’ daughter against him. The father also stated that the mother caused the parties’ daughter’s emotional and physical illnesses, including an eating disorder.
In 1999, the father owned a business that published information about radio broadcasting. During that time, the father was earning approximately $800,000 – $1 million per year. The father owned four houses, which were valued at over $3 million. The father also had a money market account, two stock accounts, and an Individual Retirement Account. The father stated that his business was valued at $1 million, but the mother stated that the business was valued at approximately $15 million. The mother’s income, on the other hand, was reduced in 1999. The mother earned $1,500 from January 1999 through mid-April 1999. The mother’s unearned income was mainly from payments for child support and equitable distribution. The mother also had a $6,000 debt for a car. The mother submitted a revised schedule of expenses, which increased monthly expenses to allow the parties’ child to enjoy a certain lifestyle. The mother did not include nonessential items, such as home repairs, in the schedule. The mother was able to pay for her and the child’s monthly expenses by utilizing her liquid assets, but the mother feared that her liquid assets would soon run out and the mother and the child would be unable to pay for their home.
The New Jersey Superior Court Family Part ordered that child support be increased to $700 per month on June 23, 2000. The judge also ordered the father to pay for the child’s medical expenses, a reliable car for the child, a cell phone for the child, and for Philadelphia Flyers hockey tickets. The father was also ordered to pay the mother’s attorney’s fees in the amount that equaled his own attorney’s fees. The judge amended the order on July 14, 2000 to note that the value of the father’s business was irrelevant. In August 2000, the judge denied the mother’s motion for reconsideration of the child support order, to begin an educational fund for the child, and for a plenary hearing, which is necessary when there is an issue of material fact and the parties’ testimony is needed to resolve the issue.
On appeal, the mother argued that the judge was wrong to fix the amount of child support, that the judge was wrong not to hold a plenary hearing, that the judge should have not have denied the mother’s claims for home improvements, and that the judge should not have allowed the father to take part in the child’s therapy sessions. The New Jersey Appellate Division first concluded that there was no error in the trial judge’s decision to allow the father to participate in the child’s therapy sessions because health care professionals indicated that joint sessions would be beneficial. The Appellate Division also found that there was no abuse of discretion by the trial judge in fixing the amount of child support. The court stated that it will not overturn a child support award that was reasonably supported by evidence.
The Appellate Division stated that children are entitled to the lifestyle that can be afforded to them by their parents. When a parent’s high-income allows for an increase in child support, the court must focus on the reasonable needs of the child, which is determined by the standard of living of the parents. Other factors, such as the health and age of the child and the child’s income, must also be considered. The Appellate Division noted that the needs of a teenager are clearly different from those of an infant. The court also stated that the court must find a balance between the child’s lifestyle choices and the child’s reasonable needs. Additionally, the court should not infringe on the parents’ right to decide what lifestyle is appropriate for the child. Ultimately, the court must determine what the child’s best interests are.
The Appellate Division stated that the father’s increase in income did not affect his ability to pay child support because he was already a high-income earner; however, as the child grew, so did her health issues. The Appellate Division stated that the trial court determined that a $200 per week increase in the child support payments was sufficient to provide for the child’s additional expenses. The Appellate Division agreed with the trial court because the trial court’s decision required the father to provide the child with a car, cell phone, and hockey tickets in addition to the increased award.
The Appellate Division noted that a child should also benefit from a parent’s good fortune for nonessential items. The court stated that the custodial parent is allowed to receive an incidental benefit from an increased child support award. When determining if an incidental benefit is appropriate, the judge must consider and weigh the child’s needs. The court noted that incidental benefits when a child is of a young age are different than benefits received when the child is approaching the age of majority. The Appellate Division concluded that the trial court was required to consider the mother’s request for supplementary nonessential items and determine if the benefit is primarily for the mother or for the child. The court stated that the child is entitled to live in a well maintained home, which may require some improvements, as well as age-appropriate furniture and personal items. The Appellate Division also considered the mother’s additional requests, such as an upgraded car and $4,000 for a vacation. The court stated that the trial court must consider the mother’s contribution to the trip and the nature of the vacation, among other things, to determine if the benefit is primarily for the mother or the child. Thus, the Appellate Division sent the issue of nonessential items back to the trial court to determine which nonessential items were appropriate.
The Appellate Division also considered the issue of attorney’s fees and remanded the issue back to the trial court to resolve the issue. The Appellate Division stated that the trial court must evaluate several factors in order to determine if an award of attorney’s fees is appropriate. The trial court must evaluate nine factors including: the financial situation of the parties; the capability of the parties to pay their own legal fees; the good faith of the parties; the amount of fees owed; any previously awarded fees; the amount of previously paid fees; the results of the litigation; the degree to which the fees were sustained; and any other relevant factors. The Appellate Division also noted that awarding attorney’s fees is up to the discretion of the trial court judge. The Appellate Division held that the trial court judge did not evaluate the factors necessary to award the mother the attorney’s fees; therefore, the Appellate Division remanded the issue to the trial court.
Ultimately, the Appellate Division affirmed the trial court’s decision to increase the child support order by $200 per week, but remanded the case back to the trial court to determine the issues of nonessential items and attorney’s fees.
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