Every teenager dreams of the day they are able to get their driver’s license. On the other hand, parents may loath this day. While the cost of purchasing a new vehicle for a new driver can easily be avoided by simply sharing a car with their parents, the same is not true for motor vehicle insurance costs. In New Jersey, the State requires that all drivers carry a minimum level of insurance, and it is a crime to operate a motor vehicle without such insurance coverage. Insurance companies, wary of the new driver’s lack of experience behind the wheel, can charge tremendous premiums, sometimes approaching or exceeding $1,000 per year. Typically, parents subsidize or pay their children’s insurance costs, but the situation becomes a bit more unclear in instances when the child’s parents are divorced and a child support order is in play. More specifically, to what extent must the non-custodial parent, who is already paying guideline-level child support, contribute additional support to cover the cost of insurance for their child who is a newly licensed driver?
In Fichter v. Fichter, the court was faced with a not unusual, but previously unaddressed situation involving this very issue. In that case, the plaintiff and defendant had two children at the time of divorce – one age seventeen and another age thirteen. The seventeen year-old already had his license, and support contributions were already being used to pay for his car insurance premiums. It seemed, however, that neither parent had contemplated that the thirteen year-old would also be getting her license in a few years, and there was no provision in the divorce settlement for this future expense. When the thirteen year-old turned seventeen and obtained her driver’s license; the custodial parent petitioned the court to increase the amount of support the non-custodial parent, who was already paying guide-line level support, needed to contribute in order to cover this new cost.
Interestingly, the State’s Child Support Guidelines (the “Guidelines”) expressly include “all costs involved with owning or leasing an automobile,” including costs related to “insurance,” among the expenses to be considered when crafting a support order. Based on this language, however, it is unclear if future motor vehicle insurance costs for a newly licensed driver would have been included in the award amount, or whether this is something that would warrant a support adjustment once the child obtains their license. Although a literal reading of the Guidelines would suggest that all motor vehicle insurance costs (current and future) would be accounted for in a Guideline support order, the Fichter Court rejected this interpretation, noting it would lead to the nonsensical result of the custodial parent receiving the exact same amount of support both before and after their teenage child obtains a driver’s license, irrespective of the sudden need to insure the driver and the related costs to do so. The court also noted that requiring an increase in support to pay for car insurance is in the best interest of the child, which is always the paramount consideration in child support determinations.
Alternatively, the court also explained that even if one were to interpret the Guidelines as already including future car insurance costs for a newly licensed driver in a support order, the Guidelines themselves also permit the court to deviate from the Guidelines in order to reach an equitable result based on the specific facts and circumstances of the case. Motor vehicle insurance costs are atypical from most other items on a family’s budget in that the law expressly requires it be had. Furthermore, the court touched upon important public safety concerns, noting that car insurance offers protection to members of the public at large who may be in the wrong place at the wrong time and fall victim to the new driver’s lack of experience behind the wheel.
Ultimately, the court required that the non-custodial parent’s support contribution be increased to cover fifty percent of motor vehicle insurance costs for the youngest child. Although foreseeable future expenses should always be considered when crafting a support order, Fichter provides important guidance on an issue that many divorced parents may encounter years later when their young children grow up and obtain their driver’s licenses.