Ah, the moment you have been waiting for – nay, dreaming of – has arrived: your child has gotten his or her driver’s license! It was a long time coming, after 17 long, hard years of carpooling to school, arguing with the other parents about who is going to pick the kids up from their mall hang-out session, shuttling your child to sports practices, lessons, tutors, and so forth. Freedom is yours! There’s just one question: who’s going to pay for the expenses associated with your son or daughter’s car and insurance expenses?
When it comes to working out a fair child support arrangement, the devil is often in the details. Child support recipients often feel that the support awarded to them under the Child Support Guidelines – the formula used in this state to calculate appropriate child support awards in most cases – isn’t enough. After all, kids cost a lot of money. Plus, their needs are constantly changing. A child support award entered when the child is 3 years old may not be adequate when that child turns 13. For parents of teenagers, one life change that often creates a dispute about the adequacy of the child support award occurs when the child begins driving and, at the very least, increases auto insurance costs.
For years, family law attorneys and our clients have grappled with the issue of whether the cost of a child’s car insurance as a new teenage driver was intended to be covered by a Child Support Guidelines-based award or, alternatively, it should be treated as an “add-on” expense to be shared by the parties over and above the child support payment. And, as Judge Jones points out in his latest thoughtful opinion, Fichter v. Fichter, it has been unclear as to whether the Court may use its discretion to increase the child support contribution in order to address the costs of having a new teenage driver of divorced or unmarried parents.
In 2013, The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines were amended and gave us some answers to these questions. As amended, child support is to include:
Transportation – All costs involved with owning or leasing an automobile including monthly installments toward principal cost, finance charges (interest), lease payments, gas and motor oil, insurance, maintenance and repairs. Also, included are other costs related to transportation such as public transit, parking fees, license and registration fees, towing, tolls, and automobile service clubs. The net outlay (purchase price minus the trade-in value) for a vehicle purchase is not included. Transportation also does not include expenses associated with a motor vehicle purchased or leased for the intended primary use of a child subject to the support order.
So, the 2013 amendments told us that if a child is going to drive his/her own car, the expenses associated with buying that car, and all other expenses associated with that car – which presumably includes insurance costs – are more appropriately considered “add-ons” to child support and not part of the child support expense. By contrast, the 2013 amendments tell us that if a child is driving his/her parents’ car, child support will include all costs associated with that car. And that makes sense: if no new car is being purchased for the child, the actual expenses incurred by the parent who owns that car are going to remain the same.
Well, except for the auto insurance. New teenage drivers can increase the cost of auto insurance for an existing car exponentially – they are one of the most expensive classes of drivers to insure due to their inexperience. To say that an existing child support award covers the cost of adding a newly licensed teenage driver to the auto policy for an existing family car – while the cost of insurance for a new car primarily for that child’s use is NOT included – seriously prejudices those families who can’t afford to, or don’t want to, buy a new car just for their child to use. Judge Jones’ new decision recognizes that inequity and allows the Court to deviate from the Child Support Guidelines and craft a child support award that takes into account the new expense of adding a teenage driver to an existing auto insurance policy:
The Court finds that, based upon the totality of a family’s economic circumstances, a court may in its discretion find good cause to deviate from the guidelines and require each parent to contribute additional reasonable and affordable monies towards a newly licensed teenage driver’s car insurance. Good cause may logically include, but not necessarily be limited to, the special nature and importance of car insurance and the need to adequately protect a child as a newly licensed driver.
And that seems fair. Shouldn’t both parents contribute to the increase of the cost in insurance if they agree they will not purchase a new car intended primarily for their child’s use? Of course, like most other things in family law, Judge Jones’ decision is fact-sensitive and not a brightline rule. Although the decision opens the door for a Court to decide to adjust child support to take into account the cost of insuring a newly licensed teenage driver on an existing family vehicle, good cause to do so must still be shown.