One of the most common questions people ask when settling their divorce matter is, how do we figure out what the child support payment is going to be? Well, as set forth in one of our recent blog posts found here, Child Support Guidelines in New Jersey control where parties combined net after tax income is less than approximately $185,000. As also set forth in that prior entry, while a custodial parent cannot bargain away their right to child support and there generally cannot be an agreement to pay less than that set forth in the Guidelines, there may be an enforceable agreement to pay more. Apparently, an agreement to pay more may hold true even where the number agreed upon was inadvertently higher than required.
In resolving child support, it is critical for the settling parties to set forth in the Marital Settlement Agreement the basis for how child support was reached – such as whether support was calculated pursuant to the Guidelines, as well as attach to the Agreement the Child Support Guidelines worksheet itself. This will clarify whether the child support number set forth in the Agreement was part of an overall settlement of the parties’ parenting and financial issues or, by contrast, a unilateral or mutual mistake of the parties.
The perils of not following these basic steps can be costly, as recently addressed by the Appellate Division in Haskoor v. Haskoor. There, the parties entered into a Marital Settlement Agreement resolving their custody and financial issues. A weekly child support amount was included, as well as terms addressing the husband’s parenting time. Less than 2 years after following the divorce, the wife sought to reduce the husband’s parenting time while increasing his child support obligation. In responding, the husband indicated that it was at that time that he first realized that the "sole parenting worksheet" rather than the "shared parenting worksheet" had been used to calculate child support in the settlement agreement, thereby obligating him to pay a higher level of child support. The husband also argued that the sole parenting worksheet applied used the wrong amount of alimony.
In affirming the trial court’s denial of the husband’s motion, the Appellate Division relied on principles of finality and equitability associated with settlement agreements negotiated between parties, noting that the husband had agreed to the child support set forth in the PSA as part of the overall settlement. Notably, the PSA did not state that support had been calculated pursuant to the Child Support Guidelines, nor did it refer to any prepared support worksheet. Interestingly, the Appellate Division noted that, even if there did exist some form of mistake, rescission of the entire agreement, rather than a mere decrease in his child support obligation as sought by the husband, would be the proper remedy.
The recent blog post referenced above addressed the Appellate Division’s decision in Foster v. McGee, which dealt with a related scenario. There, the husband had researched child support when the parties settled, proposing a number he thought was in line with the Guidelines. The settlement agreement, unlike that in Haskoor, even indicated that the support level was determined after considering the Guidelines. Ultimately, however, the husband miscalculated support, obligating himself to a far higher weekly payment number than what the Guidelines called for. That circumstance was somewhat different from the situation in Haskoor where the husband, who was represented by counsel, allegedly did not realize that the wrong Guidelines worksheet was attached, having left the preparation of calculations to his attorney.
Ultimately, both cases produced the same result – no relief to the husband despite an argument that a mistake had been made. As indicated at the beginning of this entry, the lessons to be learned include 1) detailing in the settlement agreement a basis for how child support was reached; and 2) an attachment of the Guidelines worksheet to clear up any claim of mistake.