Strahan v Strahan
After the Appellate Division released their decision in Strahan v Strahan, there has been much debate and discussion concerning whether or not that the days of liberal child support awards that exceed the established NJ Child Support Guideline amount have been “sacked” by Justice Parker’s opinion.
For those non-sports fans out there, Michael Strahan was a star defensive lineman for the New York Giants and subsequently, the recipient of numerous lucrative multi-million dollar contracts. Strahan has recently retired from playing professional football and is currently employed with Fox Sports as a football analyst for their pre and post-game broadcasts.
Strahan and his wife went through a very public divorce in the Summer of 2006. After 11 days of trial, the Superior Court determined that Strahan was to pay $235,000.00 per year in child support. This obligation was established in addition to the alimony payments that he was ordered to supply to his ex-wife and amounted to $200,000.00 above the amount established by the New Jersey Child Support Guideline calculation.
Strahan filed an appeal on the grounds that his child support obligation was excessive. The Appellate Division agreed that the trial court’s calculation of support was indeed excessive and remanded that the lower court reestablish a more accurate determination of support.
In New Jersey, child support obligations are calculated through an established formula that is primarily based on the gross incomes of the parents. There are certain mitigating or accelerating factors such as health insurance contributions or day care expenses. However, the support obligation is heavily based on the income, or earning potential of the parties.
The New Jersey Child Support Guidelines only establish a support amount for parties that earn less than a yearly combined income of $187,200. Once the Guidelines are utilized to establish a maximum amount of support, the Court has the discretion to enter an supplemental amount of child support that is commensurate with the additional financial needs of the child(ren).
While Justice Parker’s decision contains many well-reasoned conclusions of law, I believe that there are two practical tips embedded in his decision that will help an individual that is involved in a case that calls for an “above-guideline” child support award.
Be Meticulous In Distinguishing Expenses Between The Children And The Custodial Parent
The Appellate Division made it clear that a custodial parent cannot gain a financial benefit beyond what is merely incidental to a benefit conferred to a child through a child support award. In clearer terms, expenses such as home improvements and lavish vacations may rise above the scope of an incidental benefit to the custodial parent and should not be fully accounted toward the “actual” support needs of the child(ren). It is understood that a custodial parent will indeed reap the reasonable fringe benefits of a generous child support amount. However, the Courts will often look at potentially excessive and questionable “child support” expenses forwarded by a custodial parent as a tactic to “backdoor” additional support that is traditionally categorized for alimony-type payments. This classification from the Court, is one that you will want to avoid at all costs.
As a practical tip, I suggest that while preparing your case for an above-guideline litigation, you take the time to clearly identify your family’s past expenses for a 36 month period. Too many of these cases fall off- track because of improper accounting efforts. Once your total family expenses can be identified, it is imperative that you isolate and account for the true and accurate amount of expenses associated primarily with the your child(ren). Be on the lookout for such expenses such as lessons, tutoring, activities and medical costs. If your expenses are difficult to dissect, due to the commingling of funds (payment from various sources, such as credit cards and cash) to pay for various activities, I strongly recommend that you engage the services of a qualified forensic accountant to aid your efforts.
Once the expenses have been properly separated between the custodial parent and the child(ren), it is in your best interest to develop a separate Case Information Statement (CIS) for the child(ren). Accounting for the proper expenses under these established categories will greatly aid your cause for coming to that appropriate level of support above the Guidelines.
Caveat – Don’t forget to attach the supporting documentation for the expenses that you represent on the CIS. Compiling this documentation may seem burdensome, but it will save you a potential headache if your matter proceeds to trial.
Recognize A Non-Custodial Parent’s Influence On Raising The Child(ren)
While Courts do not disagree that children of high income parents are entitled to various benefits that occur with such position, Judge Parker warns that judges should avoid the pitfalls of over-indulgence when setting above-Guideline calculations. He even went as far to quote an Oklahoma case in his decision that stated “no child, no matter how wealthy, needs to be provided with more than three ponies”.
Strahan throughout the trial provided testimony regarding his concerns of spoiling his children. The Court was persuaded by Strahan’s argument that he did not want to provide a lifestyle of excessive privilege to his daughters. He believed that providing $235,000 per year to his children would lead to this path. It is clear that Strahan wanted to instill the concept of working hard for financial achievement and in turn, teaching his children the value of money.
His Wife characterized this argument by Strahan as a financially motivated tactic for lowering his support obligation. However, after reviewing the testimony, the Court was not persuaded that his argument was insincere and made it clear that the non-custodial parent’s reasonable input regarding the activities and privilege of the child(ren) holds substantial weight in above-Guideline litigation.
When preparing for this issue in litigation, I believe it is extremely important to do your homework regarding the past activities and expenses of your children before the separation. If a very expansive budget was enjoyed by your children during the marriage, you may run into difficulty at trial trying to convince a judge that you now wish to modify the “status quo” of the privilege afforded to your children. However, the Appellate Division made it clear through this decision that judges at the trial level are to take harder looks into what the reasonable needs of the children really are when both parties cannot agree on establishing a negotiated above-Guideline means of support.
I strongly suggest that if you are involved in an above-Guideline matter, to further explore all relevant factors surrounding the establishment of support, you should consult with an experienced family law attorney to properly address all of the relevant issues.