In Divorce and Child Support, Beware of Good Intentions
- On October 7, 2015
In April 2004, Paula and John were divorced after 13 years of marriage. Despite being divorced, Paula and John continued to live together for more than three years after the divorce. The divorce agreement directed John to pay alimony to Paula as well as child support for their three children and to contribute to their college expenses.
During their post-divorce cohabitation, Paula contributed to her own support relying on income generated from marital assets that she received in equitable distribution. John also participated in the support of the family and the evidence indicated that the children enjoyed the financial support of both parties as a part of a unified household, but John did not make any alimony or child support payments.
In July 2007, John and Paula went their separate ways. Paula did not take any action to enforce her rights to support (alimony and child support) until 2008. The court denied Paula’s application for alimony and child support from the date of the Judgment of Divorce (JOD) through the period of their cohabitation.
The marital agreement provided that John would not be liable for alimony upon Paula’s “cohabitation with an unrelated, adult male”. Simply put, during their post-divorce cohabitation John was and “unrelated adult male.” While this was sufficient to foreclose her request for alimony, the court also observed that Paula waived her claim to alimony by continuing to reside with John in a marriage-like relationship. Paula moved on to cohabit with another man whom she ultimately married, which foreclosed her claim to alimony following the closure of John and Paula’s cohabitation.
The prevailing law of New Jersey clearly provides that child support belongs to the child, and cannot be waived by the parent. Despite this, the court relieved John of his child support obligation during their post-divorce cohabitation, basing the decision on the principle of “laches.” Laches penalizes knowing inaction by a party with a legal right from enforcing that right after passage of such a period of time that prejudice has resulted to the other party so that it would be inequitable to enforce the right. The court undoubtedly relied on John’s financial support of the family in reaching this decision, and perhaps should have avoided any reference to “laches”.
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of this rather unusual family scenario is when the court stated that John would not be responsible to contribute to any of the oldest child’s college expenses. It is clear that John and Paula’s marriage was not without its challenges and discord, both before the divorce and during the post-judgment cohabitation, as well as thereafter until the oldest daughter was enrolled in college. During this period of time John became totally estranged from his daughter, which lasted many years. Each pointed their finger at the other as the reason for the estrangement. The court was satisfied that there was enough fault spread around amongst the parents and the child and that it would not serve any purpose to rest the fault on any one person’s shoulders.
While John and Paula’s marital agreement placed an obligation on John to contribute to his children’s college expenses, the court was satisfied at the undisputed deterioration of the father/daughter relationship was a significant change of circumstance warranting reconsideration of John’s obligation. (More on college expenses and divorce here.) Paula argued that their daughter should not be penalized because of the deterioration of the relationship: She is John’s daughter and he has a responsibility to assist her with her college expenses. The court side stepped the fault issue observing that it is usually counter-productive to attempt to assess blame in the deterioration of a parent-child relationship in the wake of a divorce. It is more relevant to focus efforts in the repair of the relationship, rather than placing blame.
It is was clear that their daughter was emotionally troubled by what she experienced during the breakdown of her parents relationship: Disputes in and out of court, financial troubles and her father’s infidelity. She placed the blame at her father’s feet and accused him of various wrongs against her mother and her self. The final straw that appeared to sever her entitlement to contribution from her father was found in letters she wrote to him: She acknowledged that he attempted to communicate with her; she told her father she never wanted to talk to him again, calling him “some stranger I wish I never I knew,” and wrote “thank God that there are no laws that can ever force me to talk to you.” The child made it clear that it was her decision, contrary to her mother’s wishes, to cut communication with her father. She further wrote, “I don’t ever want you near me again and I just want you to know you ruined my childhood and teenage years. You’ll never have the chance to come back into my life.”
The evidence demonstrated that there had been no communication between John and his daughter concerning college attendance. He was never apprised of her scores, her acceptances, and/or her financial aid.
Based upon the totality of these circumstances, the court found justification in relieving John of his college expense obligation. Clearly, the pain endured by the child must have been enormous. There was no evidence that the child caused the pain. She was the recipient of pain caused by the family environment. Unfortunately, both parents decided to extend this unbearable environment for more than three additional years after they divorced. Ultimately, it appears that the child “lost it,” lost her better sense of reason to the pain and suffering that she endured in the home environment. And for this, she was punished. It appears she simply went too far in expressing her discontent with her father. Perhaps, had she left the door open to discussion and maybe even reconciliation, John would be paying her college expenses.
In retrospect, John and Paula, and their daughter, could have avoided the unplanned consequences of their conduct if they only took time to discuss their on-going differences with a family attorney. Do not wait until it’s too late to alter the consequences of ill-advised conduct, even when such conduct is intended to provide a catharsis for emotionally distressed participants. The consequences can be financially painful.
Yannuzzi v. Yannuzzi, Appellate Division Decision August 7, 2015, unreported decision at 2014WL10191896.
Despite the prevailing law that clearly provides child support belongs to the child, and cannot be waived by the parent…