1. Could you please provide a brief overview on the current status New Jersey’s laws on reducing child support?
New Jersey child support modification laws are now being fiercely debated more than ever in the family courts. The family courts are now swamped with endless motions to request reductions of child support. New Jersey’ites are now facing the worst economic times since the depression of the 1930’s. Moreover, almost all of the manufacturing jobs have vanished. Many hard working responsible parents who once had reliable jobs and a steady paycheck, are not finding themselves unemployed or underemployed. Consequently, the family courts are now deluged with countless motions to reduce child support. Most family court lawyers now have more cases that deal with trying to reduce child support or alimony than they have regular divorce cases. The family courts are now facing a never-ending challenge of establishing child support awards that reflect the hard economic times that we are now in. However, the courts still have to protect legal rights of the child to receive adequate financial support.
2. I have just lost my job. How can I make an application to reduce my child support payments?
New Jersey law legally requires a parent to continue to make his child support payments even if he has lost his job. If you have lost your job and if just stop making your child support payments, then eventually you will be arrested and locked up. If you miss enough child support payments, then eventually a family court judge will issue an arrest warrant for you. When you miss your child support payments, you will accumulate arrears. Once your arrears accumulate to a high enough figure, sooner or later the family court will sic the County Sheriff after you by issuing a bench warrant for your arrest.
The only way to legally reduce your child support payment under New Jersey law is to file a motion with the family court and to request a reduction/modification of the child support order. The non-custodial parent who is requesting the reduction must be able to demonstrate that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that merit a reduction in the amount of child support. The family court will then be required to evaluate if the change of circumstances is temporary or whether it is permanent.
If you have lost your job, then many judges will consider this event to constitute a substantial change of circumstances. As a general rule most New Jersey courts will not grant a child support reduction motion based on a job loss if it is only considered to be a temporary condition. For a job loss to be considered a substantial permanent change of circumstances the non-custodial parent generally must be unemployed for at least twelve to eighteen months. However, each case is fact sensitive and all judges rule differently.
3. I have just lost my job and my unemployment has run out. If I file a motion to reduce my child support will the court reduce my new child support payment to zero?
Unfortunately the court will not reduce your child support to zero. Kids have to eat. Most judges reason that a parent should pick up garbage if they have to so as to earn a living to feed his kids. Moreover, the court can also impute income to a parent. For example, if the parent has recently lost a job wherein he earned $70,000 per year, and if the court believes that he has slacked off is not “pounding the payment” looking for work, then the court will presume that the parent can find similar employment and earn a comparable salary. Based on these legal assumptions, the court will then will then calculate any child support payment by using the potential earning ability of the unemployed parent. Even if the parent should take a lower paying job, the court could still consider this type of voluntary underemployment by the parent. In simpler terms if the parent takes a job for lower pay, the court could assume that the parent is attempting to undermine the law and avoid his financial responsibility to his children.
4. How are the family courts dealing with the new economic reality that the economy is in the pits in New Jersey?
In the current economy the New Jersey family courts are fast learning that they have to keep an open mind and be flexible when they are ruling on motions to reduce child support. In the majority of cases it makes no sense to lock up a parent for not paying child support. Many potential employers somehow will find out that the parent has been arrested on a criminal background search. Any person that is arrested will have to be fingerprinted. This event will show up in almost any criminal background search. In today’s world it is extremely difficult to find work if you have any type of mark on your criminal record.
In the past being unemployed was often only considered to be a temporary set back, and it would not constitute a change of circumstances. However, in today’s world it is not uncommon to hear of parents being out of work for several years. Before the economic meltdown, typically it only took a person one to three months to find a job. In the current economic climate, it typically takes at least six months to find employment, depending on the parent’s field, educational, skill levels and work experience.
The chances of a parent finding a similar job with comparable income is no longer a certainty. Roughly 9% of the United States workforce is currently unemployed. Moreover, there are an even higher percentage who are underemployed. Finally, many parents are now only working several part-time jobs to try to “scrape by.” Unfortunately, these jobs generally offer reduced pay and most no benefits, including health insurance. Moreover, the increased length of time it takes a parent to find a new job also decreases the likelihood of him finding employment with a comparable wage.
In summary, to address the challenges posed by these hard times, most judges have become more inclined to consider a parent’s job loss, a reduction in hours, or a down sizing as a substantial change in circumstances to justify a child support reduction. Now, instead of a parent being out of work for twelve months to eighteen months, now six months unemployment is often enough to justify a lower child support payment.
5. Should I hire a lawyer to file a motion to reduce my child support?
It is always advisable to hire a lawyer to file a motion to reduce child support. Many people now will call ten different lawyers and pick their brain for as much information, and then use a pro se motion package to try to reduce their child support. In the vast majority of cases, this type of strategy will not work. Only experienced lawyers know what the court wants to see in the motion papers. Moreover, an experienced lawyer could provide the judge some insightful ideas as to how to resolve the motion. Moreover, some courts are very sympathetic to pro se litigants while others are not. In my experience I have seen many pro se litigants become absolutely frustrated because they could not deal with all of the rules and papers that must be filed for a motion to reduce child support. Finally, filing a motion to reduce child support will not be as expensive as you believe. Many lawyers charge reasonable rates. If you call a lawyer and the first words out of his or her mouth is that I want a $5,000 retainer, then that lawyer may not be for you. However, believe me there is no shortage of lawyers, and many will charge you a reasonable fee to file a motion to reduce child support.
Even though the New Jersey family courts have been more inclined to consider the economy’s impact on a parent’s financial situation, it is still very difficult to have child support reduced. The court still will consider many other factors and circumstances before they will grant a child support reduction. The court will consider whether the parent has any other sources of income, such as personal savings or retirement savings. Most judges will require a parent to spend down these accounts before a child support reduction is ordered.
In summary, any parent who has experienced tough economic times and who is in desperate need to have his child support payments reduced should not try to handle these motions on his own. Only an experienced attorney who has handled countless child support motions can serve as the parent’s legal advocate, and make the strongest possible case for a reduction.