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On October 10, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an unpublished decision in Scott v. Hill, a case that was appealed from Essex County Superior Court, Family Division.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

Exceptional circumstances lead to open durational alimony!

On August 31, 2018, the Appellate Division issued an unpublished decision in B.G. v. E.G.  This was a Union County case where after a 23 day trial, the court issued an 83 page letter opinion and Final Judgment of Divorce.  Defendant appealed from several portions of the Final Judgment of Divorce.  Plaintiff cross-appealed.

One of the most contested aspects of the case was the trial court’s decision to order open durational alimony following the parties’ 14 year marriage despite of the statutory alimony changes in 2017 wherein the standard for open durational alimony became 20+ years or “exceptional circumstances.”  In this case, the parties began dating in 1988, began living together between 1992 and 1994, had their first child in 1994, and got married in 2000.  The parties had three more children during the marriage.  Plaintiff filed her Complaint for Divorce on April 1, 2014.

At the time of trial, Plaintiff was a stay-at-home parent, as she had been for the duration of the marriage.  Defendant was unemployed but had a 5 year income average of approximately $132,000.  The parties and their four (4) children and lived a middle-class lifestyle.   Plaintiff sought open durational alimony.

The oldest child was emancipated by the time the trial concluded.  Defendant was designated as PPR (Parent of Primary Residence) of the second child and Plaintiff as PPR of the parties’ third and fourth child.  The court noted that the parties’ third child (who was 11 at the time of trial) had special needs.  The court recognized that the child is on the autism spectrum, has pervasive developmental delays and attends a special school.   The court further recognized that it was expected that this child would require continued care in the future beyond the age of 21.

While the parties had been married for 14 years, the court commented that they were a “monogamous couple” for 20 years.  The court also noted that the parties lived together in an “economically exclusive and supportive relationship” since 1992 and therefore the trial court did not rely solely on the date of marriage to determine the length of the married but considered the parties’ marriage to be “equivalent to a long-term marriage of over 20 years” and in light of this, the court awarded Plaintiff open durational alimony.

Defendant appealed several provisions of the Final Judgment of Divorce, including the portion regarding open durational alimony.  Defendant argued that N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23(c) limits the duration of alimony to the length of the marriage unless there are “exceptional circumstances”

While the Appellate Court did not agree that the prenuptial circumstances were independently the basis for “exceptional circumstances”, they found that there was other substantial credible evidence in the record to support a finding of “exceptional circumstances” that, when combined with the prenuptial circumstances, warranted open durational alimony for a marriage of 14 years.  The Appellate Court specifically outlined the fact that Plaintiff did not maintain career readiness as she was caring for the children and the parties’ home; highlighted the extensive responsibilities Plaintiff has had and will continue to have relative to being the primary caretaker for the parties’ child with special needs and reasoned how those responsibilities limit Plaintiff’s job availability.

The lesson to be learned from B.G. is that here is that “exceptional circumstances” may create an opportunity in the law that, at first glance, you might not have thought existed.