If you’re unemployed and worried about your child support responsibilities, or if you’re caring for children and counting on child support payments from a parent who has recently lost a job, you probably need information about how New Jersey courts tend to handle these situations.
New Jersey child support is based on the income of both parents. Judges setting initial support amounts or ordering modifications (changes) to existing support orders follow the current New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, contained in Court Rule 5:6A and Appendix IX.
For an in-depth discussion of how courts set child support, see Child Support in New Jersey, by Susan Bishop.
Unemployment and Imputed Income
The courts take child support obligations very seriously. If a court finds that an unemployed parent could be working, or that an underemployed parent could earn more money at a better-paying job, or by working full-time instead of part-time, the court can impute income (assign hypothetical earnings) based on the parent’s previous salary, or on average earnings in the parent’s former occupation.
The court will look at factors like former income, work experience, education, training, and available jobs in the area. Without specific information about earning ability, a judge might assume that a parent is able to work a 40-hour week and earn at least New Jersey minimum wage.
Any parent who is able to work, but claims that jobs are not available, will have to show a serious and sustained effort to find a job. Evidence should include an updated resume and a log showing job contacts. Parents can’t avoid paying child support by quitting a job or refusing to look for appropriate work, but a court is unlikely to impute income to a parent engaged in a full-time job hunt if there is no evidence that available jobs exist.
A judge also won’t impute income to a parent with a good reason for unemployment or underemployment, such as a disability or the need to care for an infant or a special needs child. A custodial parent with young children may offset any imputed income with child-care costs that would allow the parent to work outside the home.
Unemployment and Disability
A parent who is unemployed due to a disability will have to present evidence of the disability to the court, such as medical records and an expert opinion, or a workers compensation determination. If the disabled parent is receiving workers compensation or social security disability (SSD) payments, a court can base child support on this income. If the disabled parent’s only income is supplemental security income (SSI), the court won’t count it as income available for child support.
Modification of Child Support Orders
It’s important to understand that a job loss does not automatically excuse child support payments. Once a court has entered an initial child support order, a parent that wants to decrease the amount due to unemployment will have to file a motion showing a substantial and ongoing change in income.
Even if a parent suffers an involuntary job loss due to a lay-off for example, a court probably won’t decrease support payments unless the parent can show the job loss is likely permanent, or at least long-term, and that a comparable job isn’t available.
While a court won’t normally grant a motion (request) for a decrease in support payments immediately following a job loss, a parent shouldn’t wait too long to file a motion either. It can take time to schedule a court hearing, and the effective date of a modification, if granted, will be the date that the parent filed the motion. A court won’t change any payments due before that date.
Enforcement of Child Support Orders
The Child Support Program of the New Jersey Department of Labor can deduct child support payments from a paying parent’s unemployment or worker’s compensation benefits and send the payments directly to the parent that receives support on behalf of the child.
A parent seeking to enforce an existing child support order can also use the Post-Judgment Motions Kit referenced above.
You can get more information about enforcement of child support orders from the New Jersey Department of Human Service’s Office of Child Support.
And, for more information on the legal consequences for the failure to pay child support in New Jersey, see Child Support in Arrears after Divorce, by Amy Castillo.
If you need additional help, you should contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.