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Article by Daniel A. Levy, Esq.

We previously wrote about how to lower child support payments. But as part of our Family Court practice we are sometimes faced with the issue of rising child support obligations around the time when children get their drivers licenses.

By way of background, there is typically one parent of primary residence who receives child support, and the other parent is payer of the child support. The amount would normally be set in one of two ways: The parents can enter into an agreement (as it typical in a divorce settlement); or the court can order the amount of child support (typically when one parent files a motion). The Court will almost always use the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines, which uses a standard formula to set child support based primarily upon the parents’ income and percentage of time that the child spends at each house. Unless there is a very good reason to deviate, the Court is legally required to use that formula. And when divorcing parents are negotiating a settlement, the Child Support Guidelines are typically used as well.

But when a teenager gets their drivers license, it could easily add a large and unexpected cost. Obviously, if the teenager gets a vehicle there is a cost for the purchase. However, the hidden cost is the extra premium that is paid for car insurance. Regardless of whether the teenager actually has a car, once they get a license the insurance for the parent that the teen lives with will go up substantially. How should this be dealt with?

If I am representing parents during a divorce, I would typically bring this up to my client. In my view, the parents should foresee this issue and come to an agreement to deal with it. Often, parents will agree to split the cost in some way. If there is an agreement, the Court will usually enforce that agreement.

But what about a situation where there is no agreement? If one parent just supposed to shoulder that cost all by themselves? This was the issue in a recent case in Ocean County, Fichter v. Fichter, which was published as a case of first impression. In that case, the couple divorced and had an agreement about the car for their older son, but not their younger daughter. Once the daughter got a license, the mother’s insurance rates went up substantially. The judge ruled that in fairness, in the best interest of the child, and under the totality of the circumstances, it was equitable to allow the mother to add the daughter to her insurance policy and that the added cost would be split between the parties. This additional cost was added to the child – a deviation from the Child Support Guidelines.

This answers a common situation that parents face in support cases. But what about the situation where one parent does not want the child to get a license in the first place, or where one parent simply cannot afford to split the cost of car insurance? Those issues will remain open for another day…