The new school year is almost here, and for divorced parents that means an extra layer of planning beyond the usual checklist of pencils, notebooks and a new lunchbox. Are your co-parenting arrangements back-to-school ready or are changes required to better suit your child’s needs? Here are some tips for how to review child custody and child support agreements for the school year ahead.
School-Related Costs & Child Support: Is Schooling Getting More Expensive?
If your child support order was entered into when your children were very young, the amount reflected the basic economic needs of your child at that time. As children grow older, finances related to raising them change – often increasing – and it may be time to revisit child support to ensure that payments adequately take into account more current costs.
School-related changes that can spur a the need for increased child support include:
In New Jersey child support orders, expenses related to school supplies are included in the “miscellaneous” category. If you haven’t revisited this miscellaneous category lately, it’s a good idea to check how accurate this amount is when considering what your child actually requires for the school year. Depending on your child’s age and grade, back-to-school costs can include: school books, tutoring, backpacks, yearbooks, field trips, laptops and graphing calculators, teacher gifts, school photos, transportation, software, registration and admission fees, college test preparation fees and college application fees – just to name a few!
It’s a common mistake that expenses in the miscellaneous category are low-balled because so many of these “hidden expenses” of schooling are overlooked at the time of the divorce. Your kindergarten child may have gotten away with only needing a pencil case and a pack of crayons for back-to-school while, but now in high school, suddenly need an upgraded laptop. If your support order should be recalculated to account for changing needs, add up all miscellaneous school expenses projected for the year and then divide by 12 to come up with a monthly figure.
Extracurricular sports and academics
Will your child join the band this year and this requires renting their instrument? Did they make the cut for the travel basketball team and now you need to budget for hotel stays? Are they in need of all new art supplies for their after school painting class? Expenses related to these types of extracurricular activities for children generally fall into the category of “Entertainment” when calculating New Jersey child support orders. Check your Entertainment line in your order. If your order was entered when your child was much younger, this line may be minimal.
To estimate an updated amount, gather estimates of your child’s extracurricular costs for this upcoming year: lesson costs, class and travel fees, uniform/instrument/equipment rentals, etc. Some co-parents are able to look over expenses together and come up with an equitable way to share them, putting that agreement in writing. In other situations, going to court to formally modify the support order is needed. You can consult with a family law attorney to understand that process for child support modifications.
Gifted and talented activities
Is your academically gifted child ready to take a college level class this year? Or do you have the next Tiger Woods on your hands and need specialized programs and coaching to nurture this special sports talent? According to the New Jersey courts, the parent with primary custody of the child is able to ask the courts for their child’s other parent to share responsibility for costs related to involvement in a sport or activity that greatly exceeds the cost of typical extracurricular activities.
In one case, for example, a mother recognized her daughter’s talent for acting and signed her up for acting classes, in which the daughter excelled. The mother requested for the father to help pay for the classes. The courts agreed with the request, ordering the father to pay a limited sum of additional funds, above and beyond basic guideline-level child support, to help with the costs of their teenage daughter’s acting-related expenses. The mother presented evidence of the daughter’s acting talents to help make her case. The courts don’t always grant these requests, however, and the parent enthusiastic about their child’s participation in a special sport or academic pursuit should be prepared to shoulder the costs or look for scholarships and other outside sources of support.
Your child’s post-high school plans matter for child support
If your child is entering their senior year of high school, it’s time to start thinking about their future – and what this holds for child support. In New Jersey, child support automatically terminates at age 19, unless the child meets one of the qualifying exceptions, including enrolling in college. What does the future hold for your child? A few months before the child’s 19th birthday, the parent receiving support will receive a notification in the mail about filing for continuation of support. If college plans are in the cards, this can be noted and support will continue. Speaking of college, it’s also time to dig out your divorce settlement to see what it says about parental sharing of college costs. In New Jersey, paying for college is NOT part of child support. It is a separate agreement struck by co-parents, typically at the time of their divorce.
Child Custody & Parenting Time: Changes in School Year Schedules
Your custody back-to-school homework assignment? Review your parenting time plans. If your summer parenting time plans differ due to work obligations, vacation, and summer camp for your child, review how this schedule will shift again once school is in session. Will you go from having your children on certain weeknights to having them on weekends only because of how far you live from their schools? Will you have to make arrangements at work to accommodate pick ups and drop offs at school? Do these plans still work for you and your child? If your child now has soccer practice on Tuesday nights until 8 pm, when that is supposed to be your evening for dinner and homework with your child, you may wish to switch nights, or come up with other alternate arrangements. Now is the time to start making plans for any upcoming changes. Many co-parents are able to work adjustments in parenting time between themselves, putting their revised agreements in writing.
Do you have an emergency custody plan?
Last but not least, let’s not forget the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and the need to be prepared for a public health emergency that completely upends the school year. Parents just now getting divorce should strongly consider including an emergency plan for how parenting time will adjust in the face of extended school closures, closed day care, and the possible need to quarantine in one place to follow local public health orders. Hammering out a plan now can save a lot of stress in the future. If you are already divorced and have a custody plan in place, it’s still a good idea to add language for emergency situations.
File this under: It’s always a good idea to be prepared.
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