Like all states, New Jersey has guidelines for the courts to use when determining child support. Underlying these guidelines is the philosophy that children are entitled to share in the current income of both parents, and that they shouldn't have to suffer economically because their parents are getting divorced. Read on to learn how New Jersey's child support guidelines work.
New Jersey uses what's known as the Income Shares Method in calculating child support. This means the amount of support is based on both parents' income, using a percentage of their total combined income to determine each parent's share of the child support amount.
For example, say Parent A earns $48,000 a year, while Parent B earns $72,000 per year. That means Parent A earns 40% of the combined total ($120,000), and Parent B earns 60% of the total. Under the guidelines, Parent A is responsible for 40% of the total child support amount, while Parent B is responsible for 60%.
In cases of sole physical custody, the guidelines assume that the custodial parents spend their share directly on the children. The noncustodial parents pay their share of the support obligation to the custodial parent. In shared parenting arrangements, the guidelines make adjustments to account for the fact that both parents pay child-related expenses while the children are staying with them (more on that below). (N.J. Rules of Court, App. IV-A(4) (2023).)
A parent's gross income includes both earned and unearned income, such as:
Note that the value of your 401(k) or other retirement plans is not considered income for purposes of calculating child support—just any distributions you're receiving once you retire.
Gross income is just the starting point. To figure the parents' net income, the guidelines allow a number of deductions, including income tax withholding, mandatory retirement contributions, and mandatory union dues.
Unfortunately, some parents try to get around paying their fair share of child support by purposely limiting their income. If a judge finds that either parent is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed without just cause, the judge will impute income to that parent. In other words, the judge will base child support on what it believes that parent could be earning. In determining that figure, the judge must consider a number of factors, including:
(N.J. Rules of Court, App. IV-A(12) (2023).)
Some parents may have a legitimate reason for not earning at their full potential. For instance, a parent who's caring for a seriously disabled child may not be able to work full time (or at all). A judge isn't going to penalize a parent in that situation.
The guidelines also make certain adjustments—such as for work-related child care expenses and health care costs—to the basic child support amount based on the parents' income.
The most important child support adjustment is based on the amount of time a child spends with each parent. This will determine whether parents will use the "sole-parenting" or "shared parenting" child support worksheet.
(N.J. Rules of Court, App. IV-A(13), (14) (2023).)
New Jersey judges may award an amount of child support that's lower or higher than the amount calculated under the guidelines, but only if the guideline amount would be inappropriate or unjust under the circumstances. Various factors might call for an adjustment to the guideline amount, including:
The child's best interest is of paramount importance when a judge is deciding whether to deviate from the guidelines. (N.J. Rules of Court, App. IV-A(2), (21) (2023).)
In New Jersey, child support must be withheld from the paying parent's income, unless both parents sign a written agreement for an alternative payment arrangement, or judge finds there's a good reason for another arrangement. (N.J. Rules of Court, rule 5:7-4A (2023).)
Income withholding doesn't just apply to a parent's paychecks. Child support may also be withheld from unemployment benefits, disability payments, and other income a parent receives.
Child support payments are processed through the New Jersey Family Support Payment Center (NJFSPC). Be aware that if paying parents change employers, they must notify the child support agency, so that it can arrange for income withholding with the new employer.
Parents receiving child support can accept it via check, direct deposit into their bank account, or through payment apps like Venmo. Alternatively, the parent can opt to receive a debit card from the state, which doesn't have to be tied to a bank account.
New Jersey law spells out the circumstances that will end the obligation to pay child support unless a court order or the parents' court-approved agreement provides otherwise. Child support automatically ends (that is, without the need to go to court to get a termination order) when the child:
The automatic cut-off of support at age 19 will not apply if:
A parent may request continued support (up until the child turns 23) under one of the following circumstances:
The law also allows custodial parents to file a motion (a formal request) for continued support past the age of 19 because of other exceptional circumstances. It would be up to the judge to decide what constitutes exceptional circumstances in any particular case. (N.J. Stat. § 2A:17-56.67 (2023).)
Keep in mind that even if a child support order ends, that doesn't let the paying parent off the hook for any arrears (unpaid back support).
Also, it's a good idea to address the issue of emancipation and termination of child support at the time of divorce, to avoid problems down the line.
If a parent who owes child support hasn't been keeping up with the court-ordered payments, the agency has several ways of making sure the support gets paid, including:
(N.J. Rules of Court, rule 5:7-5 (2023).)
There are three different ways that existing child support orders may be modified in New Jersey:
Parents may file a motion to request a change in an existing child support order, but they must show that there has been a substantial change in circumstances since the current order was issued. Once a parent has met that threshold requirement, the judge will then look into the details and decide whether a modification would be in the child's best interests. (Lepis v. Lepis, 416 A.2d 45 (N.J. Sup. Ct. 1980).) (Learn more about modifying child support in New Jersey.)
Every three years, you may ask your local County Board of Social Services Agency for a review of the current child support order. You don't need to show a change of circumstances for this review. Based on this review, the agency will recommend a change if the parents' current financial circumstances justify a 20% change from the current award under the child support guidelines.
For certain families who are receiving public assistance, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the agency will usually conduct this three-year review automatically. (N.J. Admin. Code, tit.10, § 110-14.1 (2023).)
In New Jersey, all child support orders must be adjusted every two years to reflect changes in the cost of living. The cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) will be based on the average change in the Consumer Price Index for the metropolitan areas in New Jersey. Parents will receive a notice about the proposed change, and they have the right to contest the adjustment within 30 days. (N.J. Rules of Court, rule 5:6B (2023).)
When couples with dependent children file for divorce in New Jersey, child support will be addressed as part of the divorce proceeding. Unmarried parents may apply for child support through the New Jersey Child Support Program.
Parents always have the option of agreeing between themselves about child support rather than having a judge decide for them. However, they'll have to submit their agreement to the court so a judge can make sure that it meets New Jersey's child support guidelines, or that there are valid reasons for deviating from the guidelines.
Along with your agreement (or your request for child support without an agreement), you'll need to submit the appropriate child support worksheet. You can find links and all the details about using the worksheets on the New Jersey Courts Child Support Guidelines page. You can also use the New Jersey Department of Human Services official guidelines calculator to get an estimate of the amount of guideline child support in your case, based on your income and parenting arrangements.
If you can reach a settlement agreement that covers all of the issues in your divorce before you file your initial paperwork, you can save a lot of time and money by filing for an uncontested divorce in New Jersey. And if you're having resolving your differences, mediation can help. But if that doesn't work, you should strongly consider speaking with an experienced family law attorney who can help you navigate the legal system and protect your interests, as well as those of your child or children.