New Jersey Family Law Office: What Happens to Child Support Arrearages When the Payee Dies?

A New Jersey appeals court has held that child support payments past due at the time of a recipient’s death belong to the estate of the decedent, not to an emancipated child of the deceased.

According to court documents, Donald and Linda Roder were married in 1987, and Donald adopted Linda’s five-year-old child, Mathew Merkel. Donald and Linda divorced 10 years later and Donald agreed to pay child support for Merkel. Donald fell behind in his child support and, at the time of his former wife’s death, he owed more than $40,000 in back child support. When Linda’s estate was probated, the administrator sought the back child support to be paid into the estate. Donald filed legal action to ask that the money be paid to Merkel instead, as he was just graduating from college and needed the money.

At trial, the judge agreed with Donald and Merkel, directing that the arrearages be paid to the son. The administrator of the estate appealed.

The appellate court reversed the ruling at trial, concluding that the trial judge’s actions were “inconsistent with and not supported by the record,” and that they furthermore constituted “a misapprehension of the law.” The appeals court ruled that the arrears were a child support obligation to Linda Roder, not a college education debt to Matthew Merkel. Even though the ultimate beneficiary may have been the child, the obligation to pay is to the parent. Accordingly, Roder had no obligation to pay any support to Matthew.

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