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On October 5, 2018, the Appellate Division handed down an unpublished decision in M.B. v. D.B., a case that was appealed from Mercer County Superior Court, Family Division.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