Can one former spouse obtain a Court Ordered reduction in child support in New Jersey simply by stating that his or her income is no longer what it once was? The simple answer is no, as the payor spouse must show that he has attempted to "improve" on his worsening situation, and an analysis of his expenditures and assets will also occur. Courts will also look at the parties’ understanding at the time when they executed a settlement agreement should one exist. Only if the payor spouse can overcome those hurdles may a Court properly determine that he has established a prima facie case of substantial and continuing changed circumstances from when the support obligation was set.
As I indicated above, Courts will look at the parties’ intentions at the time the settlement agreement was signed to determine if the parties "reasonably anticipated" the very condition the payor now claims to have changed. Such was the case in Lester v. Lester, a recently unpublished (not precedential) decision from the Appellate Division where the husband/payor moved for a reduction in his child support payments based on a claim that his income had continually declined due to his pre-existing, yet worsening psoriasis condition. The husband was a physician who alleged that his condition prevented him from performing certain surgeries that were previously part of his medical practice.
In affirming the trial court’s denial of the husband’s motion for a child support reduction based on his failure to establish a prima facie case of changed circumstances, the Appellate Division primarily noted that the reduced income was only one part of the puzzle. The other parts, including the husband’s medical condition pre-existing the settlement agreement with its potential worsening having been presumably contemplated by the parties when the settlement agreement was signed, the husband’s failure to reduce his personal and professional expenses, and his "considerable assets" beyond his income, completed the puzzle in the wife/payee’s favor.
Establishing changed circumstances is therefore no easy task, as the Appellate Division in Lester analyzed every detail down to the husband’s purchase of a new Mercedes. As shown in this prior blog entry, as well as this one, there is a lot of work to be done in both making and defending against such an application.