Throughout both New Jersey and Pennsylvania, high income earning families are not controlled by child support guidelines but rather, an individual analysis is required of the reasonable needs of children. It has always been presumed, and the courts have always ruled that the good fortune of a high income earning parent should “trickle down” for the children. Children of high income earners generally have more options available to them, are involved in more activities, vacations, and tend to enjoy the accoutrements of a more lavish lifestyle, including education.
However, are there limits? Is it prudent that the budget of a family of extremely high earners should never be questioned? The Appellate Division in New Jersey has recently decided a matter which will have implications on both sides of the river.
Michael Strahan was a star linebacker for the New York Giants in the National Football League for years. He separated from his wife, having married in July 1999, and his wife had twin girls, born October 2004. A divorce was filed in March 2005 with joint legal custody being granted.
There is no question that the marital standard of living was well in excess of $1,000,000 per year for the family. Therefore, the question became one of the “reasonable need” of the children. The trial Court awarded $630,000 per year solely on behalf of the children! Further, the Court ordered the father to be responsible for 91% of the entire award. Strahan appealed.
In an enlightening decision, the Appellate Court reversed much of the monthly child support award and determined that the obligation was “beyond their reasonable needs,” referring to the children. The reasonableness of the children’s needs included such items as $30,000 in landscaping, audio visual expenses of $3,000 per year, and $36,000 per year for equipment and furnishings on behalf of the children. The Appellate Division concluded that these needs were completely unreasonable and were not given scrutiny by the trial Court, likely because of the high level of income of Mr. Strahan. The Court’s attitude is made clear from the rhetorical question, “How many ponies does one child need?” The Court reversed the decision. The importance of this decision demonstrates that in all cases where the overall income exceeds the maximum encompassed by child support guidelines, the Court must do an exhaustive analysis of the actual and reasonable needs of the children. While not disputing that the needs of the children of high income earners may be greater, there should not be a “carte blanche” approach to awarding child support. Excesses should be obvious and discouraged.
Therefore, when analyzing what a child support obligation is, it is important for parties and their attorneys to analyze the reasonableness of expenses being claimed, the actual details of the expenses, and to be able to justify those expenses to a Court. While the child support award may still be substantial, it is in no way limitless.