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FIGHT CLUB PART 2: Angelina Jolie’s Request for “Meaningful Child Support”: Calculating New Jersey Child Support in High Income Cases

The Jolie/Pitt “Fight Club” continues. I previously blogged about the Jolie/Pitt divorce in “Fight Club: What You Can Learn From Angelina Jolie’s and Brad Pitt’s Long Term Relationship With Short Marriage“.  This week the media was abuzz with news of Angelina Jolie’s claims that Brad Pitt is not paying “meaningful child support,” which begs the question, what is “meaningful child5d984e7b33cffbf6bc1f5cd9b12b51d5-300x200 support”? Clearly, Jolie and Pitt are not your average parents. They both earn a significant amount of money. And, even though Jolie may very well be able to support their children on her income alone, that does not negate Pitt’s obligation to support the children.  I have blogged before about New Jersey child support when the parties earn more than the income stated in the Child Support Guidelines.

The philosophy behind the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines as stated in the appendix to the Guidelines is as follows:

Child support is the constant duty of both parents.

A child has a right to share the current income of both parents.

A child should not be a casualty of an out of wedlock birth or a divorce.

The Guidelines attempt to simulate the percentage of parental net income that is expended on children in intact families. Even though the appendix to the Guidelines acknowledges that expenditures in two households of separated or divorced parents are different from expenditures in the household of an intact family unit, the Guidelines state that children should not be forced to live in poverty because of a family interruption and should be given the same opportunities as intact families with similar financial means.

The Guidelines governing child support apply in most cases. However, in “above-the-guidelines” cases they do not entirely apply. When a case is “above-the-guidelines” it means that the combined net income of both parents is greater than $187,200. The Guidelines may not be extrapolated for cases where incomes exceed the Guidelines. Calculating child support in an “above-the-guidelines” case would deny a child their right to share in both of the parents’ high income. The Guidelines would be applied to the portion of the parties’ combined net income up to $187,200. For the amount above the $187,200 figure, the court must apply a more subjective analysis to determine the appropriate level of support, applying the statutory factors of New Jersey’s child support statute (which I have listed below).

In Strahan v. Strahan, 402 N.J. Super. 298 (App. Div. 2008), which involved the divorce of a professional football player, the Appellate Division considered whether a purported need for child support of $235,984 per year was appropriate, and whether it was appropriate to order the defendant to pay 91% of the children’s child support needs.   Our courts have also stated: “[W]here the parties have the financial wherewithal to provide for their children, the children are entitled to the benefit of financial advantages available to them.” Isaacson v. Isaacson, 348 N.J. Super. 560, 579 (App.Div.), certif. denied, 174 N.J. 364 (2002). “Children are entitled to not only bare necessities, but a supporting parent has the obligation to share with his children the benefit of his financial achievement.” Id. at 580.

In setting child support, the court shall consider the factors set forth in the child support statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a):

(1) Needs of the child;

(2) Standard of living and economic circumstances of each parent;

(3) All sources of income and assets of each parent;

(4) Earning ability of each parent, including educational background, training, employment skills, work experience, custodial responsibility for children including the cost of providing child care and the length of time and cost of each parent to obtain training or experience for appropriate employment;

(5) Need and capacity of the child for education, including higher education;

(6) Age and health of the child and each parent;

(7) Income, assets and earning ability of the child;

(8) Responsibility of the parents for the court-ordered support of others;

(9) Reasonable debts and liabilities of each child and parent; and

(10) Any other factors the court may deem relevant.

“The key to both the [g]uidelines and the statutory factors is flexibility and the best interest of children.” Pascale v. Pascale, 140 N.J. 583, 594 (1995).

In the context of high-income parents whose ability to pay is not an issue, “the dominant guideline for consideration is the reasonable needs of the children, which must be addressed in the context of the standard of living of the parties. Strahan v. Strahan, 402 N.J. Super. 298 (App. Div. 2008). The needs of the children must be the centerpiece of any relevant analysis.” Isaacson, 348 N.J. Super. at 581. The consideration of needs is the centerpiece of any relevant analysis.” Id. at 581. The consideration of needs must include the age and health of the children–with the understanding that infants’ needs are less than those of teenagers–as well as any assets or income of the children. Id.

Determining a child’s “needs” in high-income earning families presents “unique problems.” Id. at 582. “First, a balance must be struck between reasonable needs, which reflect lifestyle opportunities, while at the same time precluding an inappropriate windfall to the child or even in some cases infringing on the legitimate right of either parent to determine the appropriate lifestyle of a child. This latter consideration involves a careful balancing of interests reflecting that a child’s entitlement to share in a parent’s good fortune does not deprive either parent of the right to participate in the development of an appropriate value system for a child. This is a critical tension that may develop between competing parents. Ultimately, the needs of a child in such circumstances also calls to the fore the best interests of a child.” Id.

As can be seen the factual circumstances involved in calculating child support in an “above-the-guidelines” cases are not so simple. Discretionary spending patterns can vary widely. The Guidelines do not define the appropriate level of support in an ‘above-the-guidelines” case. It is important for the custodial parent to properly document the child’s needs and the cost of those needs. Needs beyond basic items such as food, clothing and shelter, such as the following: private school tuition, private tutoring, summer camps ,music/art lessons, sports clinics, vacations, transportation for a child who drives, a family car, and incidentals should be considered. However, the custodial parent should be reasonable in determining the needs of the child and not use this as opportunity to grant all of the child’s or parent’s wishes. The courts have been instructed to “be vigilant in providing for ‘needs’ consistent with lifestyle without overindulgence.” Some courts have dubbed this the “Three Pony Rule,” which states that “no child, no matter how wealthy the parents, needs to be provided more than three ponies. Isaacson v. Isaacson, 348 N.J. Super 560 (App. Div. 2002).