Child support is often one of the most contentious issues involved in resolving a divorce matter. Its status as a topic of frequent dispute between divorcing spouses owes a great deal to how complex the process of arriving at the amount of the child support obligation can be. Factors such as the arrangement for physical custody of the children, the parties’ incomes, and the children’s ages, educational status, and specific needs will all influence the level of child support set by the court. This issue is made even more complicated by the lengthy court rules which govern the calculation of child support. As it takes many years for family law attorneys to master the intricacies of calculating child support, it is an issue which can often, and quite understandably, be bewildering and confusing to clients.
For a parent who will have the obligation to pay child support, the process of arriving at the amount to be paid often produces conflicted emotions as well. The paying parent certainly wants to provide for the needs of his or her children, but at the same time the parent often, naturally, does not want to pay more than he or she is obligated to under the law, especially if this parent has financial constraints of his or her own. As a result, the amount of support to be paid for the children often becomes a contested issue. As the recent decision by the Appellate Division in S.W. v. E.W. makes clear, it is crucial to present the correct arguments and evidence when child support is in dispute.
In this case, the former husband appealed the increase in his child support obligation set by the trial court after the former wife had filed a motion seeking the increase three years after the parties’ divorce. The former husband claimed that the court did not “emancipate” the parties’ daughter (i.e., declare the child an adult who is no longer in need of support from his or her parents) at the appropriate age and that the court did not accurately determine his income from his business. Specifically, the former husband claimed that his daughter had graduated college and was therefore “emancipated,” thus freeing him from his support obligation, and that the court had overstated his income by adding in inappropriate items such as income from loans and personal expenses paid by the business.
The Appellate Division rejected the former husband’s arguments. With regard to the issue of the “emancipation” of the parties’ daughter, the Appellate Division noted that the former husband had simply failed to even present the issue of emancipation at trial, as he had assumed that the former wife was in agreement that the daughter was in fact emancipated. As he never argued this issue, he was barred from raising it on an application for the trial court to reconsider its decision and, in turn, from raising it on appeal. Furthermore, the Appellate Division noted that, even if the matter had been raised, the former husband simply did not introduce any evidence indicating that the daughter was in fact emancipated, including whether or not she had graduated from college, whether she was employed, or whether she remained financially dependent on her parents.
As to the former husband’s income, the Appellate Division agreed with the trial court’s determination that it was proper to add in income that the former husband had received from loans and his personal expenses that paid by the business. The Appellate Division pointed out that the former husband had withheld information and documentation regarding his business and left the court with no choice but to estimate his income by other means.
The lesson to be learned from the decision in S.W. v. E.W. is that, if the issue of child support goes to trial, all possible arguments and factors relevant to the child support analysis must be raised at trial and supported by sufficient evidence. The former husband may very well have experienced a different result if he had made an issue of and produced evidence demonstrating his daughter’s “emancipation” and if he had provided a more complete picture of the finances of his business. Instead, he was left wondering “what if?”, a position that no litigant ever wants to be in after the conclusion of trial.