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More on Calculating Child Support Obligations in Multiple Families

As the landscape of the “traditional family” continues to evolve, children are being born into multiple families requiring innovation in calculating child support obligations on behalf of children in these families. In  a previous blog entitled “Calculating Child Support for Multiple Families”, my colleague, Padraic F.X. Dugan, Esq., outlined the procedure for properly calculating child support on behalf of children of multiple families pursuant to the Appellate Division decision in Harte v. Hand, 433 N.J Super. 457 (App. Div. 2013). In that matter, the defendant/father had three children, each with different mothers. The eldest child resided with Mr. Hand and his current wife, while the middle child lived with his mother, T.B. The youngest child lived with her mother, Ms. Harte.  Mr. Hand sought to reduce his child support obligations owed on behalf of his children with Ms. Harte and T.B. The Appellate Division found that the trial court erred in the method applied for calculating child support which resulted in Mr. Hand being ordered to pay an inflated amount of child support for the children not living with him.  The Appellate Division reasoned that “equality in treatment for the mothers should not be obtained by requiring the father to pay an inappropriately high level of support for both children.”

Recognizing that children from multiple families should not be prejudiced by other child support awards the obligor has to another family or families, the Appellate Division held that the following methodology should be used: First, child support pursuant to the Child Support Guidelines should be calculated for Ms. Harte’s child first, with her child considered as having the “prior order”, and listing T.B.’s child as the recipient of the second order.  Second, these positions would be flipped with child support calculated so that T.B.’s child is considered the “prior order” and listing Ms. Harte’s child as the recipient under a second order.  In each calculation, the party receiving the “second” order, would have the amount calculated for the “first” order entered on line 2(b) of the worksheet, thus subtracting that support from the defendant’s weekly income. Then, after the four calculations are prepared, all including the defendant’s eldest child as another dependent deduction of $177 on line 2(d), the two resulting T.B. worksheet child support obligations (line 27) would be averaged, and the two Harte worksheet calculations averaged. Defendant would then be ordered to pay the average of the two support calculations to each plaintiff. The Appellate Division reasoned that this method would ensure that the children were treated fairly regardless of birth order, while not disregarding the obligor’s obligation to support all of his children.

On remand, the trial court expanded upon the decision in Harte v. Hand, 433 N.J. Super. 457 (App. Div. 2013), as to calculating child support obligations for children of multiple families.  In addition, this is the first case addressing the effect of the self-support reserve in modifying child support awards and setting out the procedures to modify and equitably distribute child support for multiple families when the obligor’s income falls below the self-support reserve.

First, the trial court clarified that when calculating child support for multiple families, the court will calculate two separate child support obligations for each custodial parent and then average the two together. One obligation is calculated without including any prior child support order. The second obligation is calculated with consideration of the prior support orders. Then the two resulting child support obligations are averaged together and the average of the two awards becomes the child support award for that custodial parent.

Next the trial court addressed the self-support reserve in calculating child support.  The self-support reserve is a sum of money that the obligor will have to support himself or herself before paying child support. The self-support reserve ensures that an obligor and obligee have sufficient income to maintain a “basic level of subsistence living” after child support is awarded. Pressler & Verniero, Current N.J. Court Rules, comment 7(h) to Appendix IX-A, at 2500.  The self-support reserve equates to 105% of the federal poverty line for one person. Id. In some cases the obligor’s child support obligations reduce the obligor’s income to a level below the poverty guidelines. If an obligor’s child support obligation reduces his/her self-support reserve below the federal poverty guideline, the child support award may be adjusted.

The trial court held that the following methodology shall be applied in calculating the self-support reserve in cases with multiple family obligations: First, determine the federal poverty guideline for the current year. Id. Second, combine the obligor’s support orders. Third, calculate the net income of the non-custodial parent. Fourth, subtract the poverty guideline amount from the obligor’s net income to determine the self-support reserve amount. Next, the court must decide whether the custodial parent’s income is above or below the self-support reserve. This is determined by taking the self-support reserve calculations from line 25 of both of the child support worksheets and averaging the two lines. If the average is below 105% of the poverty guideline for the year, then the custodial parents’ income is below the self-support reserve.

If both parents’ incomes fall below the self-support guideline, no adjustment shall be made to the child support award. Pressler & Verniero, supra, comment 20(a) to Appendix IX-A at 2514-15. However, when the non-custodial parent’s income falls below the self-support reserve but the custodial parent’s income is above the self-support reserve, then a fixed dollar amount between $5 per week and “the support amount at $170 combined net weekly income for the appropriate number of children.”  Id. The chart found in Appendix IX-F must be used to determine this amount. Presselr & Verniero, supra, Appendix IX-F at 2567. In the alternative, if both parents’ incomes are above the self-support reserve, no further action is required. The child support is not modified.

When a court modifies a child support order because of the obligor’s income being below the self-support reserve, “the orders should be adjusted to distribute the obligor’s available income equitably among all children.” Pressler & Verniero, supra, comment 10 (b) on Appendix IX-A at 2503; Pressler & Verniero, supra, comment 21(o) on Appendix IX-A at 2515. The court may average the orders or, in it’s discretion, determine another equitable resolution to treat the child fairly under the Guidelines. See Pressler & Verniero, supra, comment 10(b) on Appendix IX-A at 2503.   The ultimate goal when calculating child support for multiple families is the fair treatment of each family. The trial court stated that the most equitable way to divide child support amount is in proportion to the custodial parent’s respective incomes using the following methodology: First, determine the new total child support amount. Then determine the proportional earnings of the custodial parents. To find this ratio, divide the net income of the higher earning custodial parent into the net income of the lower-earning custodial parent. The custodial parent with the lower income will receive the higher percentage of the total child support award, and the custodial parent with the higher income will receive the lower percentage.

Despite the existence of child support guidelines worksheets, calculating child support can obviously be complex undertaking, that even the courts continue to face challenges with in doing so equitably. The attorneys at James P. Yudes, P.C. have handle many of these types of cases and have the resources to deal with such complex matters.