Adjustment to Child Support Guidelines Calculations When Parents Have Equal Parenting Time, As Seen in the Town Topics, Princeton, NJ (July 2010), Jan L. Bernstein, Esq.07/11/2010
More and more divorced couples are departing from the conventional alternate weekend parenting schedule. Traditionally, and still a common arrangement, most divorced couples establish one of the parents as the Parent of Primary Residence, or “Custodial Parent,” with the Parent of Alternate Residence, or “Noncustodial Parent”, usually having parenting time on alternate weekends with or without varying additional weekday parenting time. Today, many divorced parents are able to spend equal time with the child(ren) and establish parenting schedules accordingly. Because the Child Support Guidelines were developed based on one parent being designated as the Parent of Primary Residence and the other parent as the Parent of Alternate Residence even in a shared parenting scenario, a New Jersey trial court recently instructed how the Guidelines should be applied to situations of equal parenting time in a case Wunsch-Deffler v. Deffler, 406 N.J. Super. 505 (Ch. Div. 2009).
The amount of child support paid by one parent to the other is determined pursuant to the Child Support Guidelines for couples whose incomes total $187,200 net per year or less. The Child Support Guidelines were developed by economists at the request of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, with the goal of providing uniformity and fairness in child support awards throughout the State of New Jersey. In income situations above the Guidelines or in the presence of other compelling circumstances, deviations and/or supplements are permitted by applying the factors in the child support statute (N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23.a). Usually the child support is paid to the parent deemed to be the Parent of Primary Residence by the Parent of Alternate Residence. Generally, child support is calculated by applying a formula that takes into consideration various factors, including but not limited to the family’s income and the amount of time each parent spends with the child(ren).
When the parties share an equal number of overnights with the child(ren), an adjustment needs to be made to the Child Support Guidelines calculation. This adjustment is necessary to account for both parents’ responsibility for paying the child(ren)'s “controlled expenses” as they are defined under the Child Support Guidelines. “Basic child support” consists of three consumption categories: (1) fixed expenses (representing 38% of the child support amount); (2) variable expenses (representing 37% of the child support amount); and (3) controlled expenses (representing 25% of the child support amount). The first category, “fixed expenses” are those incurred even when the child(ren) is not residing with the parent. Housing-related costs, like dwelling, utilities, household furnishings and household care items, are considered fixed expenses. The second category, “variable expenses” are incurred only when the child(ren) is with the parent. This category includes costs such as transportation and food. The fixed and variable expenses must be met by both parents and each parent's responsibility is determined based upon his/her relative income and the time each spends with the child(ren).
The third category, “controlled expenses,” are different from the other two categories of child expenses as they include items like clothing, personal care, entertainment and other miscellaneous expenses. The Child Support Guidelines assume that Controlled Expenses are only incurred by the Parent of Primary Residence. Accordingly, Controlled Expenses are apportioned between the parties based on their income shares, not in relation to time spent with the child(ren). A perfunctory application of the Guidelines in a situation of equal parenting time would be unfair because while both parties are incurring Controlled Expenses for the child(ren) due to the shared parenting time, the Guidelines assume that only the Parent of Primary Residence would incur these costs. Consequently, the parent paying child support with equal parenting time would effectively pay these costs twice: once as child support to the other parent, and again when these costs are incurred during the payor’s parenting time.
To remedy this situation when parents share equal time with the child(ren), the New Jersey trial court established a procedure to adjust the payor's child support payment to account for the fact that each party is responsible for paying the child(ren)'s Controlled Expenses during his/her parenting time. This procedure subtracted the 25% of assumed Controlled Expenses from the payor's child support obligation. The result reached takes into account that both parties, and not only the party receiving child support, pay Controlled Expenses for the child(ren) during their equally shared parenting time. Because this formula to deviate from the Child Support Guidelines was from a trial court, other New Jersey judges are not necessarily required to follow this formula. However, this decision does provide insight into arguments that can be made by those payor parents who have an equal parenting time schedule.