On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Bergen County, FD-02-193-86.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: S.L. Reisner, J.A.D.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Before Judges Collester, Lisa and S.L. Reisner.
The issues on this appeal are whether and when the Probation Division is obligated to collect post-judgment interest on overdue child support, where the underlying child support is being paid through Probation.
A brief sketch of the factual and procedural background will suffice. Plaintiff, Winifred Pryce, and defendant, Patrick Scharff, were married in 1978. They had one daughter, born in 1980. The couple separated in 1985. Defendant's child support payment was set at thirty-five dollars per week in 1986. After he moved to Florida and fell behind in his support payments, the trial court ordered him to pay one hundred dollars per week, including arrears, to be collected through the Probation Division.
In 2003, defendant filed a motion in the Family Part in Bergen County for emancipation of his daughter and for termination of child support. On November 7, 2003, the trial court denied his motion for emancipation and termination of child support and directed the parties to exchange case information statements.
On February 4, 2004, plaintiff filed a motion to assess interest on defendant's overdue child support. Her notice of motion asked the court to "[increase] the Defendant's Probation Department Child Support Account for accumulated interest from April 11, 1986 through September 16, 2003 in the amount of $15,459.18." On June 3, 2004, the trial judge denied plaintiff's motion to add to the Probation Division account the accumulated interest on the arrearages. Relying on a September 3, 2003 letter from the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development (DHS), the judge stated, "[a]ccording to informational Transmittal No. 58 of the Division of Family Development, the current interest rate [on child support judgments] is set at zero. Therefore, the Court will not increase the arrears on the [f]ather's Bergen County Probation Department [account]." The DHS transmittal letter asserted that because Rule 4:42-11 provides that judgments are subject to post-judgment interest except as provided by law, and because N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.20 allows DHS as the "IV-D agency" to set the interest rate on child support judgments and DHS had not yet set an interest rate, the rate was currently zero. The judge reasoned that while the New Jersey Court Rules govern interest earned on a judgment, and unpaid child support becomes a judgment by operation of law, nonetheless "'Title IV-D of the [Federal] Social Security Act delegates responsibility for the operation of the Child Support Program to . . . the Department of Human Services, Division of Family Development, Office of Child Support Services.' N.J.A.C. 10:110-1.2(a)."
Plaintiff filed a motion for reconsideration on June 28, 2004. Defendant had ceased to participate in the case, and at the direction of the trial judge, plaintiff gave notice to the Federal and State governments to determine whether they wished to participate due to the importance of the issue. The Federal government declined to participate, but at the request of DHS, an attorney for the Bergen County Board of Social Services participated in the hearing.
The trial judge denied plaintiff's reconsideration motion. In accepting the Board's contention that Probation was not required to collect post-judgment interest on child support arrears, the judge stated that "in essence the payees are not . . . assisted in any way to collect . . . the judgment interest, and I think that Probation should have the technology to do it and should do it." She concluded that the transmittal letter was "just plain wrong," but she also concluded that although the courts had authority to impose post-judgment interest on child support arrears, it appears to be within the discretion of the [IV]-D agency as to whether or not to collect a late fee or interest and they have decided thus far not to collect it. . .
It doesn't seem to me to be the best thing for the children, but it doesn't appear to me to be unconstitutional.
The judge concluded that plaintiff would be entitled to a judgment for the overdue support, with post-judgment interest, but that it was not the Probation Division's responsibility to collect the interest. Therefore, she declined to enter an order adding the interest to the Probation account.
Plaintiff appealed. The Bergen County Board of Social Services participated in the appeal, as it did at the trial level. We granted motions from the New Jersey Department of Human Services, Office of Child Support Services (DHS) and the Seton Hall Law School Center for Social Justice to appear as amicus curiae.
We begin by defining precisely what is at issue. At oral argument, the attorney representing DHS conceded that, under the Court Rules, child support judgments bear post-judgment interest at the rates provided in the Rules. R. 4:42-11(a). Therefore, had plaintiff filed a motion simply asking the court to enter a judgment for interest on the child support arrears, DHS would have had no objection. DHS also posed no objection to Probation collecting the interest in its capacity as an administrative arm of the Administrative Office of the Courts, if required to do so by the Court Rules. The issue, as framed by DHS, is whether Probation is required to collect the interest in its capacity as the contractual designee of DHS as the IV-D agency. The State's position is that under Federal and State law, the IV-D agency is not required to collect interest on child support judgments, and that the State has made a policy decision not to collect the interest. Therefore, collection of interest is not included in the IV-D contract and Probation will not receive IV-D funding for performing that function. The State further contends that its policy choice is reflected in the Court Rules. Alternatively, the State argues that if the Court Rules require Probation to collect interest on child support judgments, it may do so, but without IV-D funding support.
We decline to address the contractual and funding issues because they are not properly before us. This case is not a dispute between Probation and DHS over funding. It is a dispute between DHS (represented below by its designee the Bergen County Board of Social Services) and plaintiff over whether she is entitled to an order adding post-judgment interest to defendant's Probation-enforced child support account.
Since the facts are undisputed, and the trial judge's decision turned solely on her interpretation of the law, our review is de novo. "A trial court's interpretation of the law and the legal consequences that flow from established facts are not entitled to any special deference." Manalapan Realty, L.P. v. Twp. Comm., 140 N.J. 366, 378 (1995). Likewise, as further discussed below, we find no basis on which to defer to the State agency's construction of the law, because it is not grounded in any DHS regulation, formal Attorney General opinion or other document worthy of deference, and it is contrary to the legislative history our research has uncovered.*fn1
Federal law requires states to efficiently collect child support as a condition of receiving Federal funding. The Federal system was cogently summarized in the Supreme Court's opinion in Blessing v. Freestone, 520 U.S. 329, 117 S.Ct. 1353, 137 L.Ed. 2d 569 (1997):
To qualify for federal AFDC funds, the State must certify that it will operate a child support enforcement program that conforms with the numerous requirements set forth in Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 651-669b (Nov. 1996 Supp.), and will do so pursuant to a detailed plan that has been approved by the Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary). § 602(a)(2); see also § 652(a)(3). The Federal Government underwrites roughly two-thirds of the cost of the State's child support efforts. § 655(a). But the State must do more than simply collect overdue support payments; it must also establish a comprehensive system to establish paternity, locate absent parents, and help families obtain support orders. §§ 651, 654. A State must provide these services free of charge to AFDC recipients and, when requested, for a nominal fee to children and custodial parents who are not receiving AFDC payments. §§ 651, 654(4). . . .
The structure of each State's Title IV-D agency, like the services it provides, must conform to federal guidelines. For example, States must create separate units to administer the plan, § 654(3), and to disburse collected funds, § 654(27), each of which must be staffed at levels set by the Secretary, 45 CFR § 303.20 (1995). If a State delegates its disbursement function to local governments, it must reward the most efficient local agencies with a share of federal incentive payments. 42 U.S.C.A. § 654(22) (Nov. 1996 Supp.). To maintain detailed records of all pending cases, as well as to generate the various reports required by federal authorities, States must set up computer systems that meet numerous federal specifications. § 654a. Finally, in addition to setting up this administrative framework, each participating State must enact laws designed to streamline paternity and child support actions. §§ 654(20), 666. . . . . If a State does not "substantially comply" with the requirements of Title IV-D, the Secretary is authorized to penalize the State by reducing its AFDC grant. [Blessing, supra, 520 U.S. at 333-335, 117 S.Ct. at 1356-1357, 17 L.Ed. 2d at 577-579.]
In New Jersey, the Department of Human Services (DHS) is the designated "IV-D agency." N.J.S.A. 2A:17-56.52. DHS in turn has contracted with the Probation Division of the Administrative Office of the Courts to serve as the entity responsible for collecting child support. See FFY 2004 Cooperative Agreement Between the Division of Family Development and the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Pursuant to the Federal Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), States that participate in the IV-D program must enact legislation providing that "any payment or installment of support under any child support order" be treated as "a judgment by operation of law . . . including the ability to be enforced." 42 U.S.C.A. § 666(a)(9). Participating States must also "provide services relating to . . . enforcement of child support obligations, as appropriate, under the plan" and "enforce any support obligation." 42 U.S.C.A. 654(4)(A) and (B). This includes enforcement of a "support order," which is defined as a judgment, decree, or order, whether temporary, final, or subject to modification, issued by a court or an administrative agency of competent jurisdiction, for the support and maintenance of a child . . . which provides for monetary support, health care, arrearages, or reimbursement, and which may include related costs and fees, interest and penalties, income withholding, attorneys' fees, and other relief.
[42 U.S.C.A. 653(p); emphasis added.]
The Federal Act also defines "child support" in almost identical terms as those defining a support order: amounts required to be paid under a judgment, decree, or order, whether temporary, final, or subject to modification, issued by a court or an administrative agency of competent jurisdiction, for the support and maintenance of a child, including a child who has attained the age of majority under the law of the issuing State, or a child and the parent with whom the child is living, which provides for monetary support, health care, arrearages or reimbursement, and which may include other related costs and fees, interest and penalties, income withholding, attorney's fees, and other relief.
[42 U.S.C.A. 659(i)(2); emphasis added.]
The Act defines "overdue support" as the amount of a delinquency pursuant to an obligation determined under a court order, or an order of an administrative process established under State law, for support and maintenance of ...