The court, in Strahan v. Strahan, A-3747-06, said that the trial judge failed to make the specific findings of fact necessary to sustain his decision to add $200,000 a year to the $35,984 annual award that the couple's twins girls are due under statutory guidelines.
While acknowledging there are unique problems with determining the reasonable needs of children of high-earning families, the court said trial judges should nevertheless avoid overindulgence -- citing the doctrine of In re Patterson, 920 P.2d 450 (Kan. App. 1996), that "no child, no matter how wealthy the parents, needs to be provided [with] more than three ponies."
The court also found error in the trial judge's saddling of Strahan with 91 percent of the child support obligation, especially since the judge did not impute any income to Strahan's former wife, Jean, even though she is college-educated and capable of working but has voluntarily chosen not to do so.
When the couple began dating in 1994, Michael Strahan was in his second season with the Giants and Jean Strahan was a model and manager for a cosmetics company, earning about $70,000 a year. In 1995, they moved in together and she quit her job. They married July 18, 1999, after signing a prenuptial agreement. Their twin girls were born on Oct. 28, 2004.
Divorce proceedings began in early 2005 and a judgment of divorce was entered on July 20, 2006. The couple agreed on joint custody of the girls, with Jean having primary residential custody. An amended judgment, entered in early 2007, ordered equitable distribution and child support. Strahan's motion for reconsideration was turned down. The parties reached an out-of-court settlement on equitable distribution but not on support, which was left for the appeal.
The New Jersey appeals court agreed with Strahan that Essex County Superior Court Judge James Convery erred in setting the supplemental child support amount and in ordering him to pay 91 percent of it.
Although the parties' experts agreed the Strahans' marital standard of living was approximately $1 million a year, Convery found the "reasonable current standard of living" of Jean Strahan and the two children was $630,000 a year, or $52,500 per month. He imputed no income to her except $28,470 per month in net investment income, leaving her with a monthly $24,030 shortfall. He decided on a yearly support award of $235,984 and charged 91 percent of it to Strahan, who in 2006 earned about $5.87 million.
But the appeals court said Convery failed to make a detailed examination of Jean Strahan's child support request and instead merely accepted her recitation of the children's needs. Those "needs," wrote Appellate Division Judge Lorraine Parker, included the children giving their nanny a 10-day vacation in Jamaica; diamond jewelry for their grandmother; $30,000 yearly for landscaping expenses; $36,000 a year for "equipment and furnishings"; and $3,000 yearly for audio visual equipment. Jean set their clothing needs at $27,000 a year, since the children needed new outfits every time they saw their father and one of them demanded a new purse every time she left the house.
"[T]he court made no distinction between what needs were reasonable, given the age of the children, and what simply amounted to a 'fourth pony,'" wrote Parker, who was joined by Judges Rudy Coleman and Thomas Lyons.
Parker said it appeared that Jean Strahan was actually the beneficiary of some of the child support payments. While a custodial parent may reap some "incidental benefits" of a wealthy noncustodial parent's child support payments the custodial parent cannot become the primary beneficiary, especially when there is no alimony.
The panel also agreed that income should be imputed to Jean Strahan, who decided not to work even though she held two college degrees, a previous career and "employment opportunities [that] were, in all likelihood, enhanced by her celebrity marriage."
"There is no question that as a healthy, educated, forty-one year-old, defendant is capable of earning her own income," added Parker, directing that on remand, the trial court should consider all possible sources of Jean Strahan's income -- earned and unearned -- as well as her assets in determining her share of support.
The judges also reversed the trial court's order that Michael Strahan take out a $7.5 million disability insurance policy as security for child support, premised on the possibility that injury or sickness could leave him unable to play football. They found the situation no different than that of any other injured or ill divorced parent who is thus left with reduced income, entitling him to seek a modification of child support.
They further found the rationale for the insurance moot since Strahan gave up football in June to become a commentator. "Plaintiff's retirement further illustrates the unreasonable requirement of the disability policy," Parker said.
Finally, the judges reversed a $13,777 fee award for Jean Strahan's lawyers in connection with Michael Strahan's post-judgment motion for reconsideration, calling it an abuse of discretion. The parties, in their prenuptial agreement, had assumed responsibility for their own counsel fees and Strahan's motion was not made in bad faith, Parker said.
The panel rejected Strahan's request that on remand, the case be assigned to another judge, finding a bias against Strahan could not be inferred from Convery's rulings against him.
Michael Strahan's lawyer, Angelo Genova, of Livingston, N.J.'s Angelo, Burns & Vernoia: "Mr. Strahan is gratified by the result and feels his legal position has been vindicated. He hopes the matter can be resolved amicably, going forward in the interests of the children."
Jean Strahan's lawyer is likewise optimistic. "This is a period at the end of a long sentence," says Ellen Marshall, of Greenbaum, Rowe, Smith & Davis in Roseland, N.J. "We're glad Judge Convery is remaining with these issues, and we're confident we can resolve of the remaining issues amicably."