I often encounter parents who enter our office with misconceptions about how child support is determined. I find this fear stems from two places: 1) A misunderstanding of how child support is calculated; and 2) references in pop culture. (One song by Kanye West, in particular.)
Common NJ Child Support Myths:
- Neither gender nor marital status plays a role in calculating support in New Jersey.
- Your income isn’t the number on your W2 nor is it your bank balance at the end of the month.
- Parenting time and child support are separate but related concepts. You can have equal or greater parenting time and still be obligated to pay child support.
- Finally, no parties beyond the two parents, biological or adoptive, are required to support a child.
An overview of how and why support is calculated shows how each is true.
Child support is designed to prevent a child, who is not responsible for the actions and decisions of the parents, from being subjected to different economic circumstances when spending time with one parent versus another. Put simply, the child should always have access to the same level of care he or she would have had if the parties remained an intact family. This theory applies whether the parties were married, together, or involved in a one-time occurrence.
To accomplish this, the New Jersey Child Support Institute (NJCSI) of Rutgers University conducts expansive research regarding the incomes, needs, and wants for families in the state. This data is used to ascertain what average families of different sizes and incomes should spend on their children.1 NJCSI then feeds this data into an algorithm we commonly refer to as the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, which acts as a calculator for what any given family, based on vast but tailored circumstances, needs to spend to adequately support a child.
As the needs of every family and child are different, the Guidelines account for many expenses but not all. Clients are often surprised to discover which expenses are included and which are not.2
Calculating Child Support Payments in New Jersey
Although the Guidelines are expansive and implicate many variables to fit as many scenarios as possible, the general mechanism is as follows.
- First, we look at two parents as if they were still together and establish their combined income.
- Next, we establish how much an average New Jersey Family earning that income would spend to support that number of children, and we ascertain the total support amount.
- Then, we apportion the total support amount to each parent based on what that parent’s percentage of the total income is.
- Finally, the respective portions of support are increased and reduced based on factors like parenting time, health care, childcare, and other support obligations.
As one party will be the recipient of support and the other paying, after income shares are assigned and respectively reduced, the party with the larger support contribution becomes the obligor, and his or her percentage share becomes the child support obligation.
The most important part of this calculation is ascertaining income. We start with gross income and chip away for all mandatory expenses. Gross income includes work compensation, rental income, investment income, government income, alimony received, and more. Mandatory expenses include income taxes, Court-ordered support obligations, mandatory union dues, and mandatory retirement contributions.
What about my rent?
The Guidelines do not interpret any other expenses as mandatory to prevent parties from living more extravagant lives to reduce their ascertained income.
What about my retirement and health insurance?
So long as an employee can opt out of these services, the contributions are considered income. Therefore, a police officer’s mandatory 10% pension contribution is excluded from his income, but any contribution in excess is not.
What about her new husband?
Only the parents, biological or adoptive, have a legal obligation to support the child. Therefore, no income from a stepparent, significant other, grandparent, or sibling will be included for purposes of calculating child support.3
Next, credit is given for the amount of overnights a child spends with each parent. An overnight is defined as 12 or more hours spent in a party’s care. Though it is difficult but not impossible to spend 12 consecutive hours with a child without the child staying overnight, it is rare a party will be afforded credit for an 8 a.m. pick up and 8 p.m. drop off. This is because costs addressed by the Child Support Guidelines are largely associated with staying overnight. In fact, the total amount of child support is made up of three categories: Fixed Expenses, Variable Expenses, and Controlled Expenses.
- Fixed Expenses are those incurred by the parent whether or not the child is in that party’s care at any moment, like dwelling, utilities, furniture, and household supplies.
- Variable Expenses are incurred only when a parent is with the child, including food and transportation.
- Controlled Expenses fall somewhere in between, because they are not always incurred by both parties and are not consistent, namely clothing and entertainment.
In effect, parents will be given credit for the three types of expenses in proportion with how often the child is with that parent, and therefore, how much of the expense is borne by that parent. However, should one parent have substantially more income than the other, credit for parenting time may not reduce the support obligation to zero because the other parent will still incur Variable Expenses.
Finally, parents are given credit for their contributions to what the Guidelines call Supplementary Expenses, including health insurance for the children and work-related childcare. These are expenses that are not included in the Guidelines, likely because they vary by family but can be easily ascertained and divided between the parties based on their income percentages. It is important to note that each parent is only responsible for contributions to the health care of the children, but never the other parent. Further, only childcare necessary for work is a Supplementary Expense, not the babysitter hired for date night. One additional noteworthy Supplementary Expense is private school tuition, which, outside an agreement between the parties, the Court must determine is the financial responsibility of both parties.
Understanding Court-ordered Deviations in Child Support
Once child support is calculated, Pandora’s Box opens with the addition of Court-ordered deviations. The Court has the power to change the child support obligation amount to fit the specific circumstances of the parents and child. The most common deviation is made when the parties’ incomes are so high that they transcend the data NJCSI conducted for average New Jersey families.
Of course, past a certain level of income, it may be challenging for a Court to determine what parents should spend and should not spend on their children. Therefore, using the obligation calculated by the Guidelines as a floor, the Court primarily focuses on additional support to meet the lifestyle the child would be accustomed to but for the separation of the parents. Even that can be adjusted, however, as the Court recognizes that a child is entitled to share the good fortune of either parent. The Court can also look at the dichotomy of a child’s life between two households.
Other common deviations include accommodations for parents with prior child support obligations, parents of a child who is going to college, and children involved with sports or activities that far exceed the needs of the average child at that family’s income level.
Searching for a matrimonial attorney with child support experience?
I find that taking the mystery out of child support goes a long way toward helping my clients understand the process and what support they will be paying or receiving on behalf of their children. While it is not always a straightforward issue, we help guide our clients through these issues by helping them to understand the foundations, building blocks, and purpose of child support.
To discuss questions you may have regarding child support, call (973) 992-0900 to speak with a Skoloff & Wolfe, P.C. attorney practicing matrimonial law.
About Rachel L. Friedman, J.D. – Family and Matrimonial Law
Rachel L. Friedman joined Skoloff & Wolfe, P.C. as an associate in 2019. Rachel is admitted to practice law in New Jersey and has focused her practice on family law matters. In addition, Rachel is a member of Skoloff & Wolfe, P.C.’s Litigation Department which represents companies and individuals in complex business disputes. Following her graduation from law school in 2018, Rachel clerked for the Honorable Christopher S. Romanyshyn, Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Essex County. During her clerkship she became a certified court mediator and conducted mediations for family disputes and small claims.