Kids & Divorce: Which Parent Buys School Supplies?


The school year for students in most New Jersey school districts is now in its first full week. Still tracking down school supplies? As parents of school-age children know, stocking up on clothing and notebooks — and even things like iPads and laptops — can be quite a project, not to mention a substantial expense. Separated or divorced parents often wonder if they are shouldering too much of the burden. Who is supposed to pay for all of this stuff anyway?

The answer isn’t always crystal clear, but there are a few principles in the New Jersey Child Support Guidelines that can start you off in the right direction. The Guidelines treat most of the basic items a child needs for school, including clothing and miscellaneous items, as “controlled costs”– meaning costs that are within the control of the custodial or primary residential parent. The Guidelines also assume that for most families, paying for one set of clothing and supplies presents enough of a challenge, so there is ordinarily no allowance for duplication of such items in each parent’s home. For more see our article, New Jersey Educational Expenses in Child Support Calculations.

By way of comparison, this is a bit different from the way the Guidelines treat the “fixed costs” of child support, such as housing, or “variable costs,” such as food, transportation, and some types of entertainment. In a shared-parenting situation, if a child spends a substantial amount of time in each parent’s household (generally at least two overnights per week), the Guidelines acknowledge the need for some duplication of fixed costs, since each parent needs to provide separate living accommodations for the child. There is no such allowance for duplication of variable costs, since things like food and transportation are not ordinarily duplicated, but these costs are adjusted according to parenting time, so that the more time a child spends at a parent’s residence, the more of a credit that parent receives for the cost of feeding the child and transporting the child to various places.

So what does this mean for you if you are not the primary residential parent, and yet you find yourself purchasing a lot of school items? If these are not duplicates or special gifts, but just basic items that the child needs, you can ask the other parent to give you a credit for your purchases. Be careful, however, about deducting the amount from a regular child support check. It’s better for accounting purposes if you get a separate check back, and be sure to hold onto your receipts. If the other parent declines to reimburse you, and you frequently pay substantial amounts, you can ask the court for an adjustment to your support payments to take this situation into account.

You can also ask the court for an adjustment if there is an urgent need to duplicate items for a child. The court might be more inclined to grant this kind of request if you share time almost equally with the other parent and you are both able to afford to purchase the items individually. Regardless of whether or not you end up on the hook for the cost of duplicating items, however, if your bank account can tolerate the expense, you may want to go ahead and purchase a few things on your own just for the sake of convenience. It can be quite unwieldy to send everything back and forth all the time, and it can really disrupt your evening if, for example, a last-minute project is due and you have to run back to the other parent’s home for supplies. Things like crayons, colored pencils, markers, safety scissors, poster-board, construction paper and glue are all handy to have on hand for entertainment purposes anyway. Keeping a well-stocked kitchen or office cabinet isn’t likely to require a huge investment and can be a life-saver in a pinch. Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s teachers for help either. Some schools will provide an extra set of textbooks for children who travel back and forth between homes during the week.

What about non-essential items, like the special shoes your child needs for that ballet class? Items that require expenditures above and beyond the basics are not normally included in the basic child support amounts at all. Like private school tuition, or the cost of the extracurricular activities themselves, these are considered add-on expenses. Whether or not they are necessary and affordable is something parents should negotiate between themselves. If you and the other parent disagree about the expenditure, you can go to mediation, or you can get a judge to decide the question for you.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that who pays for what is just part of the battle. The investment of time required to purchase all of the necessary clothing and supplies can be considerable. Even if you are not the primary residential parent, shopping with your child is not only helpful but can be a good bonding experience. Take the opportunity to re-educate yourself occasionally about your child’s ever-changing taste in clothing and other items. This is something you can do anytime during the year, not just in September.