The state Supreme Court’s Family Practice Committee is recommending rule revisions that would allow child-support determinations to be based on a broader and more accurate picture of family spending.
The committee, chaired by Appellate Division Judge Marie Lihotz, urges adoption of a new award schedule that "for the first time captures spending in families over a twelve-year period," from 2000 through 2011, which "encompasses prosperous years, recession years and the current slow recovery years."
The proposed award schedule, published this week with the committee’s report, would call for lower child-support awards in many cases, particularly where there are multiple children.
For example, at present, two parents with a combined weekly income of $1,000 are jointly responsible for $232 a week in child support for one child, $317 for two, $361 for three, $403 for four, $443 for five and $482 for six.
Under the revised schedule up for consideration, two parents with that weekly income would be responsible for $233 per week for one child, $257 for two, $315 for three, $350 for four, $389 for five and $433 for six.
The difference is less notable for those earning more. For example, a couple with a combined $2,000 a week at present is responsible for $325 a week for one child, $431 for two, $477 for three, $532 for four, $585 for five and $636 for six. Under the new schedule, they would be responsible for $338 for one child, $374 for two, $468 for three, $520 for four, $578 for five and $643 for six.
A couple earning $3,000 a week currently must pay $410 for one child, $543 for two, $593 for three, $662 for four, $728 for five and $792 for six. But under the revised schedule, they would have to pay $447 for one, $478 for two, $600 for three, $663 for four, $732 for five and $810 for six.
Payments are calculated from the award schedule, which uses both parents’ incomes. The schedule is based on the federal Consumer Expenditure Survey, which comprises data collected by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics about what parents spend on their children.
It estimates the cost of raising children by comparing total spending of households without children to households with children.
Each parent’s individual income is accounted for in determining the amount he or she will pay toward the award, so the one who earns more typically pays more.
Those seeking payment modifications must petition the court based on "substantially changed circumstances," such as job loss or demotion.
The federal Family Support Act of 1988 requires states to review guidelines every four years. The committee recommendations are largely based on findings by the Rutgers University School of Social Work and cap a review process that began in 2009 and involved the judiciary, the Department of Human Services and other state agencies, county welfare agencies and other entities.
Dr. William Rodgers III, chief economist for Rutgers’ Heldrich Center for Workforce Development, was the committee’s lead expert.
The recommendation would be the third major revision to the guidelines since their adoption 26 years ago.
The first major revision was adopted in 1997 and significantly modified the child-support calculation process courts use by accounting for overnight parenting time and other factors.
A second revision, in 2006, included a new child-support award schedule, which is still in use.
"Since the last revision, you’ve had a significant downturn in the economy," says committee member Bonnie Frost, a partner at Denville’s Einhorn Harris Ascher Barbarito & Frost, who exclusively handles divorce matters, including appeals. "People are spending less on their children because they’ve had to cut back."
"When money is flush and you’re worried about your job … you have a different perspective," she adds.
Frost says the award schedule, when first introduced in 1986, removed much of the contentiousness from dissolution proceedings by mandating uniformity.
The committee recommended other changes to child-support guidelines used in determining adjustments — to exclude auto expenses for a vehicle used exclusively by the child, to account for multiple children with varying parenting time schedules and shared-parenting situations, and to treat Social Security disability derivative benefits paid to the child as income to the disabled parent, not as a credit to child-support payment.