Understanding New Jersey Child Support Laws

In New Jersey, both parents have an obligation to financially support their children. Learn how child support is calculated.

By , Retired Judge

New Jersey Child Support Guidelines

All states have established guidelines for the courts to use in determining child support. Underlying the child support guidelines in New Jersey is the philosophy that children are entitled to share in the current income of both parents. Additionally, children shouldn't have to suffer economically because their parents are getting divorced.

New Jersey uses what's known as the Income Shares Method in calculating child support. What this means is that the court bases the child support award on both parents' income, using a percentage of the total combined income to determine each parent's share of the child support amount. For example, Parent A's income is $50,000 per year, and Parent B's is $100,000 per year. The combined income is $150,000. So Parent A would owe one-third of the total child support amount, and Parent B would owe two-thirds.

A parent's gross income encompasses money received from most sources, whether that income is earned or unearned (like interest and dividends). But that's just the starting point. There are several factors the court must take into consideration in figuring out the net income the support calculation is going to be based on.

There are a number of deductions the guidelines address, such as mandatory retirement contributions, federal, state and local income tax withholding, and mandatory union dues. There are also certain expenditures the court must take into account, for example work-related child care expenses, and health care costs.

Additionally, the amount of time a child spends with each parent plays a major role in child support, and this will determine whether parents will provide the court with a "sole-parenting" child support worksheet, or a "shared parenting" one. In many situations, a child primarily resides with one parent (parent of primary residence or "PPR"), with the other parent (parent of alternate residence or "PAR") exercising parenting time (visitation). A typical—but by no means exclusive—visitation schedule is for the PAR to have the child every other weekend, and perhaps spend time with the child one evening per week. In that scenario, the parents would fill out a sole parenting worksheet.

However, if the PAR has the child for the substantial equivalent of two or more overnights per week (excluding things like vacations) and shows the court that separate living accommodations for the child are provided in that parent's home, the parents would use the shared parenting worksheet.

It's beyond the scope of this article to go into exhaustive detail on income and deductions. But if you're interested, you can look at a sole parenting worksheet and a shared parenting worksheet for more information.

Deviating From the New Jersey Guidelines

If a judge believes that the child support guidelines might not be appropriate in a particular case, the law allows the judge to deviate from the guidelines. A few of the factors a court may consider in deciding whether deviation from the guidelines is warranted are:

  • parents' very high or low income
  • unreimbursed medical or dental expenses for either parent
  • tuition for children (such as for private or parochial school)
  • educational expenses for either parent to improve earning capacity
  • special needs of gifted or disabled children
  • the children's ages
  • substantiated financial obligations for elder care or a disabled family member, and
  • a parent owing support to more than one family (based on prior support orders).

If the court deviates from the guidelines when calculating child support, it must put the reasons for the deviation in writing, along with a notation of the amount of support called for by the guidelines before the judge adjusted that amount.

The best interest of the child is of paramount importance when a judge is deciding whether to deviate from the guidelines.

Imputing Income to a Parent

Unfortunately, some parents try to get around paying their fair share of child support by purposely limiting their income. In New Jersey, this normally becomes a classic example of "cutting off your nose to spite your face."

If the court finds that either parent is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed without just cause, it will impute income to that parent. In other words, the court will base child support on what it believes that parent could be earning. In determining that figure, the court looks at a number of factors, such as:

  • the parent's work history
  • occupational qualifications
  • educational background, and
  • prevailing job opportunities in the area.

Notice the phrase "without just cause" in the preceding paragraph. It's important to understand that a parent may have a legitimate reason for not working to capacity. Think of a parent who is caring for a seriously disabled child, for example. A court isn't going to penalize a parent who's in that type of situation.

How Is Child Support Paid in New Jersey?

A while back, legislators realized that leaving it up to one parent to pay child support directly to the other parent had become a nightmare. Neglected payments were putting parents expecting to receive a check in dire economic straits. So now the law states that child support must be withheld from the paying parent's income, unless the parents otherwise agree in writing, or the court finds there's a good reason for permitting an alternative payment arrangement.

Income withholding doesn't just apply to a parent's employment. Income can also be withheld from unemployment benefits, Social Security disability, disability payments, and other income the paying 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.

Emancipation and the Termination of Child Support in New Jersey

In many states, a child's emancipation corresponds to the child's reaching the age of majority, which is when the child technically becomes an adult. Typically, that is when a child turns 18 years old. The assumption is that at this age, children should no longer be dependent on their parents. Hence, that's also the age when child support normally ends (barring certain circumstances, particularly allowing a child to finish high school).

New Jersey, however, has long taken the position that—for purposes of child support—tying emancipation to the age of majority may sound good in theory, but it doesn't really fly as a practical matter. The problem was that New Jersey law on the subject had become something of a hodgepodge of statutes and case law, often requiring that the person paying support go to court for an order to end the obligation although the fact that the child was emancipated was obvious. So in 2017, the state revised its laws on terminating child support, revamping them and primarily incorporating them in one statute.

Under the current law, unless a court order or judgment provides differently, the obligation to pay child support terminates automatically (without the need to go to court for an order) on the date that a child marries, dies, or enters the military service. In addition, the child support obligation terminates automatically when a child reaches 19 years of age, unless one of the following applies:

  • Another age for the termination of the obligation to pay child support is specified in a court order, provided that age doesn't extend beyond the date the child turns 23.
  • A custodial parent submits a written request seeking the continuation of child support, prior to the child reaching the age of 19.
  • The child receiving support is in an out-of-home placement through the Division of Child Protection and Permanency in the Department of Children and Families.

With regard to the written request referenced in the second bullet point above, the law sets out the acceptable circumstances for making the request, which would be either:

  • the child is still enrolled in high school or other secondary educational program
  • the child is a student in a post-secondary education program (such as college or trade school) and is enrolled for the number of hours or courses the school considers to be full-time attendance during some part of each of any five calendar months of the year, or,
  • the child has a physical or mental disability, as determined by a federal or State government agency, that existed prior to the child reaching the age of 19 and requires continued child support.

A custodial parent may also make application for continued support past the age of 19 for exceptional circumstances. It would be up to the court to determine what constitutes exceptional circumstances in any particular case.

If a child is seeking support past the age of 23, a court can order it if it believes it's warranted under the law. But that support would have to be payable and enforceable as something other than child support. In short, child support—in and of itself—can't go past the date someone reaches 23 years old.

Something else to keep in mind: even if a child support order ends, that doesn't let the paying parent off the hook for any arrears that may still be owed. 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.

Modification of Child Support Award

A parent can request a change in an existing child support order. But in order to be successful, that parent will have to show that there's been a substantial change in circumstances since the date of the current order. The change in circumstances must be permanent and unanticipated when the current order took effect. The court won't grant a modification for a prospective change, meaning one that hasn't occurred yet.

There are any number of reasons that could justify modifying a child support order. Perhaps a parent has become permanently disabled. Or maybe the child's needs have changed because of an unexpected, long-term illness. A substantial increase or decrease in a parent's income could also be sufficient. Whether a reason meets the legal requirements for a modification of child support is in the discretion of the judge.

In order to obtain a change in a child support order, the parent seeking the modification has to file a motion, or formal written request, with the court. The court rules allow the other parent to oppose the motion if so desired.

Note that there's an exception to the "substantial changed circumstances" requirement. Federal law mandates that states have a process in place for review and, if appropriate, adjustment of child support orders every three years. The review must take place if a family is receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). However, for parents not in the TANF program, although the state isn't required to conduct a review, it can order one if a parent specifically requests it.

In these three-year situations, parents don't need to show a substantial change in circumstances. The mere passage of at least three years is enough to trigger the review. But just because a review occurs, that doesn't mean the support figure is going to change. The presiding official will apply the child support guidelines to the parents' current financial situation. Once that's done, the official will determine whether an adjustment is warranted.

Note also that New Jersey law provides that a child support order entered into, modified, or enforced after September 1, 1998, should provide for a cost-of-living adjustment every two years.

Enforcement of Child Support Orders in New Jersey

The New Jersey Child Support Agency can help parents with various issues, including establishing paternity and locating parents who owe child support. The Agency also enforces existing child support obligations.

If an obligated parent is in arrears on paying child support, the Agency has several means of forcing compliance. Some of these are:

  • notifying credit reporting companies
  • intercepting lottery prize payments or a tax refund
  • seizing assets
  • license suspension (driver's, professional, or recreational)
  • denying a passport
  • collecting from civil awards or settlements, and
  • seeking enforcement through the courts, which could result in the issuance of an arrest warrant, or a judgment being entered against the delinquent parent.

The New Jersey laws on child support are always subject to change. So consider consulting a local family law attorney with any questions.

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