In order to determine alimony and child support, the court must know what both parties earn. In fact, the child support and alimony statute requires the court to look at the parents "earning ability" (in the child support statute) and "earning capacities" (in the alimony statute). Don’t ask me why the terminology is different but the concept is the same. That is, if someone is not earning up to their capacity, the Court needs to know what they can/should be earning.
This often comes up when one parent, by agreement or otherwise, was a stay at home parent or worked part-time in order to care for the children. The other instance where this comes up is one someone is a malingerer or otherwise unmotivated to work. In fact, in a trial court opinion, when discussing imputation of income in one of these situations, there is an amusing reference to a dictionary definition of a parasite.
Notwithstanding, if someone is not working or is only working part-time, the court can and usually should impute income to that party. Of course, if child care will be needed to replace the care that that parent gave, the court must also assess and offset what appropriate child care would be.
The New Jersey Department of Labor publishes statistics on wages for numerous occupations, providing statewide statistics and statistics broken down by groups of counties. In addition, the charts provide the mean, median 25th percentile and 75 percentile of income for the particular job. To go the the Department of Labor website regarding this information, click here.
Courts have the ability to take judicial notice of these statistics. Some judges will – some wont. In addition, these are merely cold statistics and may are may not provide definitive income regarding what someone can earn.
Another method of providing evidence of what someone can earn is to employ an employability expert to assess the underemployed party. Note however, there are some judges who do not allow employability experts, at all. Of course, in a case where that same judge said that a wife’s part time income should be doubled to get to a full time wage for support purposes, the Appellate Division reversed that finding because it lacked evidence in the record to support it.
I have heard other judges say that they do not put much weight to the reports/testimony of any of these experts, though they will permit them. Just recently, an adversary during a trial objected to the scientific basis of employability experts, seemingly in general (though the expert was permitted to testify and the report was received in evidence).
While I suppose there can be a debate about the science, I for one am a proponent of employability experts, where appropriate. A good expert will meet with the party, get a detailed history, perhaps do some testing, if appropriate, then do research. Part of this research typically includes resources looking at job availability in the industry. They also look at wage statistics such as those set forth above and other sources. More and more, the experts will do a labor market survey in where they contact employers in the target field to determine whether the candidate would be considered for the job and what the range of pay is. The good thing about the labor market survey is that it can buttress the statistics. The bad thing, at least at trial, is that it is a ripe area for damaging cross examination.
That said, employability experts are an effective tool to help the court determine what an unemployed or underemployed person can earn.