Appellate Division Affirms Child Support Award
By Snyder Sarno D'Aniello Maceri & da Costa LLC on May 18, 2017
The husband and wife in Sa’ v. Sa’ had two children together—the first in 2000 and the second in 2002. When the spouses divorced in 2006, the husband, a police officer, earned more than the wife, who was a clerical worker. They agreed to equally share overnight parenting time with the children, and proceeded to calculate child support in an unusual manner.
The husband and wife first calculated the support obligation assuming the wife was the parent of primary residence, and found that the husband would pay $106 per week. Then they calculated support assuming the husband was the parent of primary residence, and found that the wife would owe the husband $10 per week. The spouses deducted the wife’s hypothetical obligation from the husband’s and found the husband owed $96 per week in child support. Presumably because they agreed to sharing overnights, the husband and wife ultimately agreed that he would pay her $48 per week. That child support obligation was then reflected in their property settlement agreement (PSA), which was incorporated into the judgment of divorce.
In January 2013, the husband petitioned to terminate his child support obligation. However, the court increased child support to $114 per week because he was no longer obligated to pay alimony, and because he was earning more money. The husband appealed, but dismissed the appeal after he and the wife agreed that he would pay $70 per week. On December 5, 2014, the spouses entered a consent order that gave the husband sole physical and legal custody of the children, and granted the wife daily phone calls and parenting time “by mutual consent.” The order terminated the husband’s child support obligation, and stipulated that the wife would not have to pay the husband support “to the extent allowed by law.”
Thereafter, the husband and wife had a disagreement regarding her daily phone calls and parenting time, and the wife filed an order to show cause asking the court to order the husband not to interfere with her parenting time. The Family Part converted the petition into a motion, and the husband cross-moved for child support. On December 17, 2015, after entering several interim orders, the court ultimately ordered the wife to pay $184 per week in child support, plus $50 per week for arrears. The wife moved for reconsideration, arguing that the Family Part miscalculated her child support obligation by failing to consider all the husband’s income. The husband filed a cross-motion, claiming that he was entitled to a 14.6% upward adjustment under the Child Support Guidelines (the Guidelines) because this qualified as an “initial” child support award that was being entered for children over age 12. The Family Part denied the husband’s motion but granted the wife’s, reducing her support obligation to $164 per week and $20 per week in arrears.
On appeal, the husband contended that the Family Part erred in denying his request for a 14.6% upward adjustment. The husband acknowledged that the initial child support order was entered in 2006 when he and the wife divorced, at which point the children were well under 12. He nevertheless argued that the upward adjustment applied because it was an “initial” child support award to him. He contended that the December 17 order was the first time he was awarded child support after assuming legal and residential custody of the children, who were teenagers by that time, so it was an initial award.
The Appellate Division rejected the husband’s argument and affirmed the lower court’s denial of the upward adjustment. The pertinent portion of the Guidelines state that “if the initial child support order is entered when a child is 12 years of age or older, that order and all subsequent orders shall be adjusted upward by 14.6%.” The Appellate Division explained that in interpreting court rules, it looks at the plain language thereof and ascribes to words their ordinary meaning. Accordingly, the Appellate Division found that Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defined “initial” as “of or relating to the beginning,” and lists “first” and “earliest” as synonyms. The first support award was entered when the children were aged 4 and 6, so the December 17 award could not constitute an initial award under the Guidelines’ express language.
The husband argued, however, that the Family Part should have ignored the plain language and granted the 14.6% increase because it would be consistent with the Guidelines’ purpose. The Appellate Division explained that a court may modify or disregard the Guidelines-based award “only where good cause is shown.” In addition to demonstrating some factor that may make strict adherence to the Guidelines inappropriate, the spouse must show that a Guidelines award would result in injustice. The husband grounded his argument in the rationale for the 14.6% adjustment, which pertains to the Guidelines’ method of averaging child-related expenditures from ages 0 through 17 in calculating support. Guidelines awards for young children are slightly overstated because expenditures for older children are greater, but the net effect is insignificant if an award is entered when the child is very young and continues through age 18. But if a support award is initially entered when the child is 12 or older—when expenses are 14.6% above the average—the support award would be underestimated using the average and should be adjusted. The husband contended that the court must deviate from the Guidelines in his case because the wife never paid him support until he obtained sole custody in 2014, so he never received the overestimated support payments when the children were under 12 The Appellate Division disagreed, noting that under the original support award, the husband did receive support payments in the form of a $10 credit against his obligation. Moreover, because they used two worksheets in the initial calculation, both spouses received the slightly overstated payments.
Finally, the Appellate Division disagreed that the husband was entitled to the upward adjustment because one of the children has special needs and will require parental support beyond age 18. The Appellate Division explained that the adjustment is based only on the child’s age at the time of the initial award, and that special needs are irrelevant in a Guidelines calculation. The Appellate Division therefore affirmed the Family Part’s order.
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