Do you know the relevance of a change in circumstances as it applies to family law? It has everything to do with whether or not you can pursue a modification of a support agreement. No doubt situations change with the passage of time. However, neither party can arbitrarily decide to increase or decrease any kind of court-ordered support payments. It’s up to the court to consider the validity of modification requests.
There are a number of reasons that one of the parties may request modification of existing child support or child support ordered by the court. That said, the matter of Lepis v. Lepis, 83 N.J. 139 (1980) explicitly discusses the concept that a change in circumstances may warrant a reduction or increase in support payments.
Meanwhile, the court may look upon some changes in circumstances as self-created. In fact, in some cases, the change may also be viewed as an intentional act. Consider the wife who quits her job because she has no intention of continuing to support what she perceives as her “deadbeat ex-husband.” Or, the spouse arrested for selling drugs whose employer fires him.
Earlier this year, the New Jersey Appellate Division dealt with what appeared to be another self-created change in circumstances. The decision is unpublished and therefore only applies to the former husband and wife named in the legal action. Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting read on the issue of returning to court to modify a child support order.
Modification of Support Order: Change in Circumstances
The New Jersey Appellate Division rendered a decision in K.L. v. S.L. on March 27, 2018. As is common, the court opinion uses initials in place of the names of both parties for privacy purposes. K.L. is the wife and the plaintiff in the original divorce proceedings. In March of 2017, a lower court judge denied S.L.’s motion to reduce child support. Subsequently, S.L. appealed the decision.
The Appellate Division decision provides some insight into the matrimonial action involving K.L. and S.L. In 1996, the couple was married in China. By 2005, they were in Texas – and became parents to a baby girl. Four years later, a divorce decree was signed in the State of Texas. Soon after that, both parties left the Lone Star State.
K.L. came to New Jersey with the couple’s daughter, while S.L. moved from different states from 2009 until 2011. Meanwhile, the defendant only saw his child on three occasions during that time period. By then, the formerly married couple’s daughter attended daycare and started kindergarten. Her mother also enrolled her in a variety of lessons from ballet to swimming, and more.
S.L. paid K.L. an unspecified amount of child support until October of 2011. It is unclear why the defendant decided to stop paying the money presumably court-ordered as part of the divorce. Within that same month. K.L. made a motion to the New Jersey courts to register the Texas judgment within New Jersey. This was done so that the matter could be heard in the minor child’s “home state.”
When K.L. filed the moving papers, she also requested a modification of the existing child support order. She attached a completed Case Information Statement (CIS), her 2010 tax returns, 2010 W2 forms, and three pay stubs. Meanwhile, S.L. stated his opposition to the proposed modification. Nevertheless, he did not provide the court with his W2 forms or tax returns.
Restraining Order Found Necessary
It’s hard to tell if K.L. filed a request for a restraining order at the same time she asked for the modification in support payments. However, K.L. reported several acts of domestic violence, including the fact that her former spouse beat her almost daily and sexually and emotionally abused her. In fact, K.L. stated that she dropped charges filed against S.L. back in 2008. She felt threatened and filed for divorce at that time.
The more recent application for a restraining order was based on a number of actions that appeared threatening and harassing. Meanwhile, K.L. also indicated that S.L. raped her during his last visit with their child. As a result, a temporary restraining order was put in place in December 2011. A few weeks later, the judge entered a final restraining order (FRO).
Notably, the December court order awarded sole custody to the K.L. Also, the support aspects of the order were based on S.L.’s imputed income since he did not supply financial information in time. There were also allowances for payments related to child care and lessons.
More than five years later, S.L. made a request for modification of the support order. Although he claimed there was a change in circumstances, the court viewed his motion as an attempt to “relitigate” his child support obligation. Among other things, S.L. claimed the modification was appropriate because he was unemployed.
Self-Created Change in Circumstances
In the meantime, K.L. had her own version of S.L.’s lack of employment. She explained to the court that a couple of years back, S.L. hired a private investigator to track her down. When he couldn’t find his ex-wife, S.L. called the local law enforcement agency.
The statements to the police were particularly disconcerting. The record shows that S.L. said that her ex “"quickly began ranting about how the courts illegally took his [Second] Amendment rights away" and "stated that after his experience in family court `[he] understand[s] why people in America want to buy Ak-47's and kill people.'"
During the conversation, S.L. did not disclose the existence of the FRO. Nonetheless, when the police found it and faxed it to S.L.’s employer, a Texas university. Subsequently, the University dismissed S.L. from his teaching position. Had he not violated the restraining order, he would not be unemployed. Thus, his change in circumstances was self-created.
Both the lower court and the Appellate Division agreed that there was no reason to modify the existing child support obligations. Until his request for modification, S.L. paid support as required. There was nothing that warranted a change in circumstances.