Child Support Payments Owed by Parents Who Join the Military

Child support law generally requires a parent to pay child support based partly on the amount of income that the parent could reasonably earn (your “imputed income”) — not just the amount the parent is actually earning. So if you could earn $100,000/year, of which you’d have to pay $20,000/year in child support under the standard child support guideline, you can’t lower this child support payment by just quitting work and going to art school, or joining a monastery, or going to work for a nonprofit that only pays you $40,000/year. Your obligations to your child, the theory goes, should be based on what you could earn and not just on what you do earn.

Today’s Blancas v. Blancas (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. Mar. 16, 2012) has an interesting application of this principle, which mostly turns on a disagreement with the trial court as to whether the father — a Mexican lawyer with an LL.M. from Fordham, who wasn’t a member of an American state bar — really should be treated as having an imputed income of $136,791:

Even if, hypothetically, plaintiff sat for and passed the bar, that is no guarantee of a job in the law, particularly in the current highly-competitive job market for recently-admitted attorneys. His prior service as a lawyer in Mexico and his international contacts might provide client-generating potential, but that prospect must logically be tempered by his lack of work experience in the American legal system. It may well be that plaintiff might realistically have to seek employment as a lesser-paid associate, or serve as a paralegal, or work at a lesser-paying law firm, or seek a position outside of the New York area, given his unproven skills as a lawyer in this country. Under the circumstances, we conclude that … the trial court erred in imputing $136,791 in annual income to plaintiff.

But there’s also another twist: The father decided to enlist in the U.S. Army as a Specialist E-4, at a salary of $20,000/year (which would presumably be equivalent to a somewhat higher salary if one considers that the father probably doesn’t have to pay for housing or certain other costs). The trial judge ignored this in computing the imputed income, stating, “it is [a] patriotic and laudable endeavor on his own part, [but that] does not mean that his child should suffer and be supported by less than what his earning potential is[.]” The appellate court, though, expressed some tentative disagreement:

As part of its assessment [on remand, which is any event required given the decision that the $136,000 imputed lawyer income may be unjustified -EV], the trial court should give renewed consideration to plaintiff’s current military service and, in particular, examine whether or not the public policies underlying the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (“SCRA”), 50 U.S.C.A. App. §§ 501 to -597, and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act, N.J.S.A. 38:23C-1 to -26, New Jersey’s version of the SCRA, potentially bear upon the income analysis. In particular, the trial court shall consider whether plaintiff is currently underemployed within the armed forces itself, and whether he reasonably could have pursued, or can pursue, higher-earning positions within the military that might reward him for his legal training.