Montclair ‘Power Couple’ Safeguarding LGBTQ Rights In New Jersey

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https://patch.com/new-jersey/montclair/montclair-power-couple-safeguarding-lgbtq-rights-new-jersey

Scott v. Hill: Social Security Retirement Benefits and Child Support Credits

On October 10, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an unpublished decision in Scott v. Hill, a case that was appealed from Essex County Superior Court, Family Division.

Plaintiff and Defendant were never married, but had a child together in 2000.  In 2015, the Court entered an Order setting Defendant’s child support obligation at $140 per week, plus $10 per week towards his arrears (which were initially $560), to be paid through Probation.  A biennial cost-of-living adjustment was applied to Defendant’s obligation, thereby increasing it to $143 per week in 2017.

Defendant retired in 2015 and began receiving Social Security retirement benefits in the amount of $1,415 per month.  Defendant made an arrangement with the Social Security Administration wherein they would subtract $689 each month from his benefit and send it directly to his son, commencing January 2016.  Additionally, Defendant paid his $153 per week in child support and arrearage obligation through Probation in accordance with the 2015 court order.

In or around May 2017, Defendant became unable to make the court-ordered payments through Probation and ceased doing so.  However, the child continued receiving Defendant’s Retirement benefit each month.  Defendant filed a motion asking the court to modify his child support obligation and to give him a credit towards the arrears on record with Probation.

The trial court denied Defendant’s request for a credit for the Social Security retirement benefits paid to the child prior to the date Plaintiff filed his motion, reasoning that N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.23(a) barred retroactive modification of arrears.  The trial court found that Defendant was only entitled to credit for Social Security retirement funds that the child received after his motion was filed.

On Appeal, Defendant argued that he should get credit for the Social Security retirement payments as well as a credit against future obligations for any amount of the Social Security retirement payments that exceeded the court-ordered obligation.

The Appellate Court recounted the holding in Diehl v. Diehl, where the Court determined that a parent paying child support is entitled to a credit against child support arrears that accumulated contemporaneously with Social Security disability benefits paid to a child.  389 N.J. Super. 443 (App. Div. 2006).  The court in Diehl went on to say that the benefits paid to a child that exceed the court-ordered child support obligation cannot be fully credited against arrears or future support obligations because it is considered a gratuity to the child.  The Court clarified that social security retirement benefits are treated the same as social security disability benefits in the realm of calculating a child support obligation.

The Appellate Division ultimately ruled that the trial court erred in determining that N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.23(a) barred retroactive credit for Social Security retirement benefits received prior to Defendant filing his motion, and remanded the case to the trial court for calculation of an appropriate credit.  The Court also held that he was not entitled to credit for social security the child received while Defendant was paying child support through Probation, nor was Defendant entitled to a credit towards future obligation, as both scenarios constituted “gratuities” for the child as described in Diehl.

Terminating child support for children with special needs

On October 3, 2018, the New Jersey Appellate Courts rendered an unreported decision on a case about emancipating a child with disabilities.  (S.E. v. B.S.B. (A-0485-17T2)) 

According to New Jersey statutory law, a parent’s continuing obligation to provide child support presumptively ends when the child turns 19 years old, unless a different date is ordered by the Court.  However, even if a different date is ordered, the support cannot continue beyond the child’s 23rd birthday (except under exceptional circumstances). 

In S.E. v. B.S.B., the child receiving support was 23 years old, born with cerebral palsy, and diagnosed Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  The child’s mother filed a motion with the trial court for an order compelling the child’s father to continue providing support even though the child had reached the statutory maximum age.  The child had graduated high school, was working towards earning an Associate’s Degree, and had applied to numerous jobs (without success).  The child’s mother advised the Court that she had obtained social security disability benefits for the child and that he was also utilizing services available through social service agencies.  The Court noted that the child’s father’s testimony was limited, because he basically never had any meaningful contact with his child. 

The trial Court terminated the father’s child support obligation.  The trial court opined that the mother did not provide any current medical evidence that indicated that the child’s cerebral palsy was so severe that the child required a parent to provide financial support beyond the age of 23.  The trial court also remarked that the child was able to attend physical therapy on his own, was able to work, and could be self-sufficient. 

The child’s mother appealed.  The Appellate Court agreed with the Trial Court’s findings, summarizing their thoughts by citing 2 governing statutes (N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.67(e), and N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(a)).  The Appellate Court stated that when the 2 statutes are read together, they mean that “if an adult child suffers from a disability but is self-sufficient, he is generally considered emancipated beyond the sphere of a parent’s legal, if not moral, obligation.” (citing Kruvant v. Kruvant, 100 N.J. SUPER. 107, 119 (App. Div. 1968).  The Appellate Court commented that the record showed that the child was independent in most of his daily living activities.  The Appellate Court summed up its decision by stating that the mother in this case bore the burden of rebutting the presumption of her child’s emancipation as a matter of law, and that even though her concerns for her child’s future well-being and financial security were genuine, she had not overcome the presumptive emancipation in accordance with the 2 governing statutes. 

M.B. v. D.B.: Social Security Disability Benefits and Child Support

On October 5, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an unpublished decision in M.B. v. D.B., a case that was appealed from Mercer County Superior Court, Family Division.

The parties signed a settlement agreement at the time of their divorce in October 2010.  The parties agreed to share joint legal custody of their 11 year old and 13 year old children, and that M.B. would be the parent of primary residence (PPR).  The parties also agreed that D.B. would pay child support to M.B.

In July 2011, M.B. was checked into an alcohol and drug abuse treatment center, and relinquished custody of the children to D.B.  The Court terminated D.B.’s child support obligation in September 2011.  In December 2011, the Court ordered M.B. to pay child support to D.B. (which she did not start paying until June 2012).  In 2011, M.B. began receiving Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits for herself and the children.  M.B. also received a lump sum payment for a period prior to the parties’ divorce.  M.B. kept the SSD benefits paid to her for the children’s benefit because she felt that “she was the one disabled and she was paying child support.”  M.B. also testified that she had “absolutely no idea what [she] did with any money . . . blew it.”

The SSD benefits that M.B. received were greater than the amount of child support she was paying to D.B.  Basically, M.B. was making a net profit from the SSD payments that were supposed to be for her children’s benefit.

After a 3 day trial in May 2016, the Court issue an Order for M.B. to pay D.B. $74,584 for the SSD benefits she received for the children but kept for herself .  The Order also allowed D.B. to deduct the money from his payments to M.B. for alimony due to her over the subsequent 9 years.

M.B. appealed.  The Appellate Division noted that the trial court had carefully calculated the SSD payments M.B. received during

1) The period prior to the parties’ divorce (D.B. was awarded all funds);

2) The period when M.B. still had custody of the children (D.B. was awarded no funds);

3) The period when D.B. had custody and M.B. paid no support (D.B. was awarded all funds); and

4) The period when D.B. had custody and M.B paid support (D.B. was awarded the difference between what she paid and the SSD benefits she kept).

The Appellate Court affirmed the Trial Court’s decision, opining that that SSD benefits paid on behalf of children belong to the children, and should be paid to the custodial parent, and if a non-custodial parent’s child support obligation is greater than the benefit paid, they need to make up the difference.