A Star is Born: Examining P.S. v. J.S.

They say that every parent thinks their child is a star–but what if that star is at the center of a troublesome divorce?  In P.S. v. J.S., decided by the family court September 2, 2016, a rising star’s acting expenses were the center of a child support dispute.

The opinion in this case, which is unpublished and not legal precedent, describes a sadly common history of divorce litigation.  The court laments that the parties needed to come to court to resolve this dispute over a child’s acting expenses, and postulates that the parents may be “mutually scarred from years of time-consuming, stressful and dysfunctional litigation over countless issues.”

The dispute addressed by the court in this case was whether the non-custodial parent should have to pay for half of the child’s acting expenses, or whether these expenses were covered by the “entertainment” section of the Child Support Guidelines.

The Facts

The parties in this case have a 13-year-old child who the court called “Julie.”  The court interviewed Julie in private in 2014, at age 11, and in 2016, at age 13.  The court was impressed by Julie’s “extraordinarily deep focus on, and dedication to, theater and public performance.”  Julie discussed in the more recent interview her plan to try out for a local play and, should she get the part, rehearse every Saturday morning all summer.  She stressed to the court that any parenting time should not conflict with her acting schedule.  The court was impressed with her devotion to acting calling her “one of the most committed children this court has interviewed in years.”  Julie lives with her mother, but has a healthy relationship with both parents.

Unfortunately, acting can be an expensive enterprise.  The court understood that costs could be several hundred dollars annually, “including, but not limited to[:] clothes, travel, make-up, dues, coaching, and other ancillary expenses.”  Julie’s parents make $23,000 and $33,000, respectively, before taxes, with Julie’s father paying $113 per week in support.  Julie’s mother expressed to the court that she would be unable to pay for much of Julie’s acting expenses without additional support from her former spouse.

The Law

The family court evaluated this issue under New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines, using the appendix as guidance.  The Guidelines are used by the courts to determine the appropriate amount of child support to be paid to the parent who has custody of the child.  The court cited Comment 8 to Appendix IX-A of the Guidelines, which stated that the costs of extracurricular activities were covered in Guideline calculations. However, the court noted that Comment 9 allowed “supplemental funds” for a “gifted” child.

The court defined a “gifted” child using Webster’s Dictionary and “human experience,” coming to the conclusion that a gifted child is one who is particularly talented or skilled at a particular area.  Those particular areas are most often “(A) academics; (B) athletics; (C) technology and (D) the arts.”

Defining what constitutes such talent or skill was somewhat murkier.  The court admitted that what one person may think is a wonderful performance, another may think the “performance to be as stale as a bucket of overpriced popcorn.”  The court was not willing to assess Julie’s talent based on watching her perform or the opinion of an expert since either method would be subjective.  Instead, the court found that Julie’s “gifted” status came from her enthusiasm for acting.  The court praised her for “want[ing] to be an achiever instead of a bystander.”  In a particularly inspiring passage, the court explained that “[i]n the real world, giftedness does not solely and exclusively apply only to one’s inborn talents or untapped natural skills, but also to one’s self-discipline, ability and willingness to commit and work hard and diligently toward a specific goal.”

The court firmly decided that Julie was a “gifted” child meriting the supplemental funds to support her acting career.  In particular, the court ruled that the parents each should pay a small additional amount which will be earmarked for acting expenses.  The court was careful to state that any additional amount must be “economically reasonable” since “[n]o matter how gifted a child may be, no parent should be compelled to spend more than he or she can reasonably afford.” Thus, the court ordered each party to contribute $250.00 apiece to be earmarked for acting expenses.  This is reasonable since it amounts to “$5 per week, or about the cost of renting an old movie in high definition.”

The Bottom Line

Beside this opinion not being legal precedent, the court explains that this is a highly fact-based ruling regarding “an isolated skill or discipline where the child demonstrates an enormous and highly impressive commitment.”  The court specifically states that the case “should not be interpreted as a ruling that a parent must pay for any extra activity that a child simply happens to ‘like’” or for “general extracurricular costs.”  In particular, the court points out that without the supplemental funds, Julie may not be able to pursue acting at all.

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New Jersey’s Child Support Guidelines can be confusing even if you don’t have a gifted child.  If you and your spouse are at odds over child support, call the Fuggi Law Firm at 732-240-9095 for a free consultation, or visit us at our website www.fuggilaw.com.