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On October 10, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an unpublished decision in Scott v. Hill, a case that was appealed from Essex County Superior Court, Family Division.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

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