July 26, 2007
KENNETH R. MEYER, PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
RUTH MARIE MEYER, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.
On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part, Morris County, Docket No. FM-14-696-96.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Argued May 15, 2007
Before Judges Payne and Lihotz.
Plaintiff Kenneth R. Meyer appeals from a post-judgment Family Part order dated October 28, 2005, modifying his obligation to pay support and other child-related expenses for his two minor sons, and awarding defendant Ruth M. Meyer's attorney's fees. On appeal, plaintiff challenges the sufficiency of the evidence for the court's order, the calculation of the amount of the increased child support, and the basis for the ordered payment of counsel fees. We affirm.
The parties were married in 1979, and their two children were born on September 23, 1988 and December 10, 1990. On July 14, 1997, the dual final judgment of divorce incorporating the parties' property settlement agreement was entered. The parties agreed plaintiff would pay $3,250 per month as child support and 65% of summer camp fees, work-related child care, and uninsured medical expenses related to the care of the children. The level of support for the children was based upon defendant's earning ability of $72,500 per year along with the receipt of $1,500 per month alimony, and plaintiff's base salary of $185,000 per year.
In the intervening years, the parties successfully reached accord to allocate specific extracurricular costs and one year of private schooling expense without resort to court intervention. Discussions regarding support modification began in 2002.
On July 12, 2005, defendant filed a motion that predominately sought the enforcement of plaintiff's obligation to contribute to the children's after-school childcare expenses, to increase plaintiff's percentage obligation for the children's unreimbursed medical, dental, summer camp, child care, and private school expenses, and to increase the amount plaintiff paid for child support. In response, plaintiff filed a cross-motion seeking a recomputation of child support to include in the calculation a credit for shared parenting and the use of an Other Dependent Deduction, applicable after the birth of his third son.
After oral argument, the motion judge enforced the plaintiff's obligation to pay past after-school costs, increased the plaintiff's percentage obligation for related expenses for the children, from 65% to 80%, increased child support to $5,750 per month, and awarded payment of defendant's counsel fees and costs in the amount of $4,399.16. Defendant's other requests were denied.
Plaintiff centers his argument for reversal of the Family Part order on the belief that the motion judge gave extraordinary weight to the increase in his gross income and insufficient weight to the actual expenses and needs of the children. Plaintiff suggests the "defendant's application for more child support was really a guise for seeking increased alimony," contending that the failure to articulate specific "needs of the children that were not being satisfied absent the increased child support" was "fatal to defendant's claim."
The scope of our review is limited. "[F]indings by the trial court are binding on appeal when supported by adequate, substantial, credible evidence." Cesare v. Cesare, 154 N.J. 394, 411-12 (1998). Moreover, "[b]ecause of the family courts' special jurisdiction and expertise in family matters, appellate courts should accord deference to family court factfinding." Id. at 413. "Trial court findings are ordinarily not disturbed unless 'they are so wholly unsupportable as to result in a denial of justice.'" Meshinsky v. Nichols Yacht Sales, Inc., 110 N.J. 464, 475 (1988) (quoting Rova Farms Resort, Inc. v. Investors Ins. Co. of Am., 65 N.J. 474, 483-84 (1974)); Roe v. Roe, 253 N.J. Super. 418, 432 (App. Div. 1992).
Our review of the record, after consideration of the written arguments advanced by the parties, determines that no error is presented by the motion judge's exercise of discretion to fix the level of plaintiff's child support. See Innes v. Innes, 117 N.J. 496, 504 (1990); Raynor v. Raynor, 318 N.J. Super. 591, 605 (App. Div. 1999). First, we agree with the motion judge's conclusion that child support was subject to review as defendant had properly established a substantial change in the parties' financial circumstances since support was last calculated. Miller v. Miller, 160 N.J. 408, 420 (1999); Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139, 146 (1980); see also N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23. Defendant reported her 2004 gross earned income as $118,227. Plaintiff's gross income for that same year was $476,472, and he had earned significantly more in the three preceding years.*fn1
No modification in the amount of child support had been made in over eight years, although plaintiff had contributed, when asked by defendant, to specific activities above the monthly support, conditioned on her provision of precise documentation.*fn2 The increase in plaintiff's income, coupled with the passage of time, warranted a review. Miller, supra, 160 N.J. at 420; Lepis, supra, 83 N.J. at 151-52.
Second, the methodology employed by the motion judge recognized the extremely high incomes of these parents, making calculation of support by application of the child support guidelines, R. 5:6A and Appendix IX to the Court Rules, inapposite.*fn3 Pressler, Current N.J. Court Rules, Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A at 2236 (2007). The determination to disregard the guidelines and to accommodate the needs of the children by fixing support after an analysis of the statutory factors, N.J.S.A. 2A:34-23a, was not inappropriate. Pressler, supra, Appendix IX-A to R. 5:6A at 2217. "'The key to both the
[g]uidelines and the statutory factors is flexibility and the best interest of children.'" Caplan v. Caplan, 182 N.J. 250, 266 (2005) (quoting Pascale v. Pascale, 140 N.J. 583, 594 (1995)).
Plaintiff does not assert his inability to pay the increased child support, but challenges whether the sum ordered represents the reasonable needs of the children. We note in high parental income cases such as this one, the children's needs must reflect the lifestyle opportunities in the context of the standard of living of the parties, Isaacson, supra, 348 N.J. Super. at 581-82, which may include private school tuition, private tutoring, summer camps, music or art lessons, sports clinics, vacations, study abroad, and the provision of transportation for a child who drives, to mention only a few possibilities.
It could also include help to make the family home more presentable, assistance with the cost of a family car, or a larger amount of money for a teenager's clothing and incidentals. [Walton v. Visgil, 248 N.J. Super. 642, 650-51 (App. Div. 1991).]
In the present case, the motion judge set forth very clearly the basis of his decision, and his findings were perfectly consistent with the competent evidence. The evidence of the increased expenses associated with raising the parties' teenage sons was reflected in defendant's Case Information Statement. The support order had not been amended in over eight years. Clearly, the maturation of these young men resulted in increased costs. The award of $5,750 per month in child support for two adolescent boys, which was found by the motion judge to be fair and equitable, would not tend to fund "overindulgence." Isaacson, supra, 348 N.J. Super. at 583.
Plaintiff's challenge to the award of counsel fees is without sufficient merit to warrant discussion in a written opinion. R. 2:11-3(e)(1)(E).
Accordingly, we affirm the motion judge's determination, which was amply supported by the record and within the scope of his discretion. See Walles v. Walles, 295 N.J. Super. 498, 513 (App. Div. 1996).