Sussex County Law Modification Attorneys
Most people relocate about a dozen times during their lives, and many of these moves occur between ages of 21 and 45. Many relocations involve job or career changes, along with new hours, a new salary, and a new house or apartment. It goes without saying that a life change like this can affect any children involved, and it may also lead to changes in a co-parenting, custody, or child support arrangement between divorced spouses. Other occasions may prompt a divorce settlement modification, as well, such as one parent being diagnosed with a serious illness or a parent seeking treatment for a substance abuse problem.
At Hollander, Strelzik, Pasculli, Hinkes, Wojcik, Gacquin, Vandenberg & Hontz, L.L.C., we routinely handle family law matters throughout Northern New Jersey, from basic agreed modifications where both parents are on the same page, to complex contested actions where both parents are convinced that they are in the right. In all these actions, and more, we seek to uphold the best interests of the children.
Although the best interests of the children may change over time, the overarching principle remains much the same. In this context, that rule is that children benefit from consistent and meaningful contact with both parents, at least in most cases.
So, although it is very rare for one parent to be “cut out” of the children’s lives, modification is quite common. In New Jersey, there are two basic paths:
- Consent Order: Judges nearly always approve modifications based on mutual agreement. Some parents in these situations make such written agreements but do not take the extra step of having them judicially certified, and in these cases, such “side agreements” are totally unenforceable.
- Motion to Modify: If both parents do not agree, the requesting party must file a motion to modify, as outlined below.
Significant change of circumstances is the most common modification basis. The change could take many forms, such as a new job or new spouse. To modify custody, the change must affect the children. Therefore, a new job may not support a modification unless it has significantly longer, or significantly shorter, hours.
Imminent physical danger is another basis for modification. A new spouse with a substance abuse problem or certain kind of criminal history may qualify as a danger that warrants a modification.
Procedurally, contested custody modifications are much like divorce cases without the property division element. Typically, there is a temporary hearing, after which the judge makes interim orders. Then, following mediation and/or a social services investigation, the judge makes final orders.
Child Support Modification
Changed circumstances, usually a job change, is the most common basis for modifying child support. In this context, ‘changed circumstances’ has a slightly different meaning:
- Permanent Change: An unexpected performance bonus does not justify a child support increase, just like a temporary business downturn does not justify a decrease.
- Substantial Change: Unlike some other states, New Jersey does not have a hard-and-fast rule in this area, but in most cases, a 10% income change is probably substantial.
- Unanticipated Change: Judges reason that if the parties knew about an upcoming income change prior to the most recent order, they should have incorporated appropriate payment terms into the prior order.
- Good Faith: There are many legitimate reasons for a person to accept a lower-paying job, such as better hours or a shorter commute, but decreasing a child support obligation is not one of them.
If the obligor is unemployed, most judges still impose a child support obligation based on the minimum wage.
Step one is determining whether or not any increase or decrease is appropriate. Step two is determining the amount of modification, and this decision is based on several factors, including:
- Needs of the Child: Typically, teenagers and preschoolers are more expensive to raise than younger school-age children.
Economic Circumstances of Each Parent: New Jersey is an income share state, so child support is based on the income of both parents, as opposed to just the obligor’s income.
- Earning Capacity of Each Parent: This factor goes back to the good faith modification standard explained above.
- Other Support Obligations: Alimony may be a factor here, although a judge is much more likely to consider stepchildren or other minor support obligations.
The judge may also consider any other factor deemed relevant to a child support determination.
Spousal Support Modification
Alimony changes are some of the most frequently-litigated post divorce issues. Since it is rather expensive to live in New Jersey, many obligors regularly file alimony modification requests. For the same reason (the high cost of living), obligees often fight these actions tooth and nail. Both parties may also feel less restrained because the children are not directly involved in spousal support litigation.
Like other family law modifications, alimony modification is basically a two-step process. First, the judge must determine that there are changed circumstances. A 1980 case, Lepis v. Lepis, outlined this area to include:
- Cost of living increase
- Income change
- Post-divorce disability, illness, or other infirmity
- Obligee’s cohabitation
- Obligor’s unemployment.
Changed circumstances alone are not enough, because the party requesting change must also establish an economic impact.
Many of these areas are extremely contentious. Assume a husband retires and asks the court to reduce his alimony obligation based on his reduced income. His request may be denied if he took early retirement or there are other indications that he stopped working to reduce his support obligation. Or, a wife’s cohabitation alone is not enough to change the husband’s alimony obligation. The court will probably only take action if the wife’s boyfriend regularly contributes to her economic support or if the wife is using the husband’s alimony to support her boyfriend.
Rely on Experienced Attorneys
A parent’s changed circumstances often call for the court to consider child support or divorce settlement modifications. If you have questions about a change in your life and how it might affect your divorce settlement, let us know. For a free consultation with an experienced family law attorney in Sussex County, contact Hollander, Strelzik, Pasculli, Hinkes, Wojcik, Gacquin, Vandenberg & Hontz, L.L.C. After hours visits are available.
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