There is uncertainty in New Jersey family law as to whether a lump sum child support payment for multiple children can be retroactively modified based upon one of the children’s emancipation. This question may finally have been answered by a New Jersey Family Court in the case of Harrington v. Harrington.
In Harrington, a former husband had been paying unallocated child support of $240.00 per week for his three daughters—the term “unallocated” meaning that the child support payments were not apportioned between the three children. These payments continued at the same rate, however, even after two of his daughters were legally emancipated. It wasn’t until over a year later that he filed a motion with the court seeking a retroactive modification of child support payments dating back to the emancipation of his two oldest daughters, claiming that his child support should have been reduced to $80.00 per week (1/3 of what he was paying before two of his three children were emancipated).
In deciding whether such a modification was proper, the court had to grapple with New Jersey’s anti-retroactivity law, which prohibits retroactive modification of an existing child support order for any period of time prior to the filing date of a motion for such relief. In this particular instance, the court was concerned that the law would be violated as it related to the spouses’ youngest daughter, the only child for whom the former husband continued to make support payments.
In spite of the anti-retroactivity law, the court held that it had the power to retroactively modify child support payments if certain factors were met. These factors relate mostly to notions of fairness, such as how much time has passed between the date of one child’s emancipation and the supporting spouse’s request for modification, the reasons for the supporting spouse’s delay in seeking modification based on the emancipation of one of the former spouses’ children, and whether either of the former spouses engaged in fraudulent or dishonest activity. The court was also quick to note that, though it had the power to do so, it was unlikely to grant Mr. Harrington’s request for retroactive modification due to his having no valid reason for delaying more than a year before requesting a modification.
Any person responsible for unallocated child support payments for multiple children is thus encouraged to seek a modification immediately upon the emancipation of any one of the supported children, as courts seem hesitant to grant a retroactive modification of child support, even without the aid of the anti-retroactivity statute.