It is a given that when a teenager turns 17 and gets a driver’s license, the parents’ insurance premiums skyrocket. A New Jersey judge has ruled in a case of first impression that child support payments may be increased to help foot the bill.
“[T]he family court, in its reasonable discretion, may increase or otherwise adjust guideline-level child support in a particular case to account for the additional cost of car insurance for a newly licensed teenage driver,” Ocean County Superior Court Judge Lawrence Jones said in Fichter v. Fichter.
“The court notes that reasonable motor vehicle insurance coverage is highly critical to protect a teenage driver’s health, safety and welfare,” Jones said. “Further, reasonable coverage is equally significant for protection of the public at large, as any innocent third person in the wrong place at the wrong time can be seriously hurt by a teenager’s inexperience behind the wheel.
Jones issued his ruling Oct. 21, 2015. It was published Feb. 19.
Plaintiff Thomas Fichter and his wife, Deirdre Fichter, were married in 1991 and divorced in 2011, according to Jones’ opinion. They had two children: a son who was 17 at the time of the divorce and a daughter who was 13 at the time. Thomas agreed to pay $303 a week in child support and both parents agreed to split the cost of their son’s car insurance. The son drove a 2005 Volvo owned by Deirdre Fichter.
The son eventually became emancipated and Thomas’ child support obligation decreased to $213 a week.
However, the Fichters made no provisions for what to do when their daughter became old enough to drive and deferred the issue to a “future relevant time.”
“That ‘future relevant time,’ however, is now,” Jones said, noting that the daughter now drives the 2005 Volvo.
Deirdre is able to add the daughter to her policy for an additional annual premium of $854, providing her with above-minimum personal injury liability benefits of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident. It also would provide for personal injury protection benefits, along with property damage liability coverage, according to Jones.
Deirdre Fichter has asked Thomas Fichter to contribute additional child support to pay for the daughter’s policy, but he has not responded. Deirdre Fichter has filed a motion seeking a court order compelling him to pay more, Jones said.
Jones noted that the fact that Thomas Fichter has not responded does not automatically mean that Deirdre Fichter will get what she seeks.
Although there have been some amendments in recent years regarding child support guidelines, there has been no direction offered as to what to do when a teenage driver is merely added on to a custodial parent’s policy and not given his or her own car.
“[A]court addressing this issue must do so by prioritizing equity, logic and substance over form, while applying concepts of reason, fairness and common sense in a manner that most consistently furthers the best interests of a child at issue, i.e., a new teenage driver, in a given case,” Jones said.
Jones said there are those who have concluded that the added cost of car insurance already is included when a child support settlement is reached.
Jones said he disagreed with that conclusion.
“The net effect of such an interpretation, however, is that the custodial parent would end up receiving the same amount of child support both before and after a teenage child obtains a driver’s license, irrespective of the sudden need to insure the teenager, the additional cost of such insurance and the nature of the additional financial burden placed upon the custodial parent’s shoulders to provide adequate insurance for the child,” he said.
“The court finds that, based upon the totality of a family’s economic circumstances, a court may in its discretion find good cause to deviate from the guidelines and require each parent to contribute additional reasonable and affordable monies toward a newly licensed teenage driver’s car insurance,” Jones said.
He said the $854 additional premium for the daughter, while costly, is reasonable and affordable if both parents contribute, and he ordered them to split the costs in half. Once the daughter turns 18, and if she becomes emancipated, the parents may consider having the daughter contribute a third of the cost.
Litigator Timothy McGoughran, who focuses his practice on family law, said Jones issued a “well-reasoned opinion.”
“There have been questions on this issue for years,” said McGoughran, who runs a firm in Farmingdale. “Additional premiums are added on a policy when a teenager gets his or her license whether the child gets their own car or not.
“This is something a court can consider as an add-on,” he said.
Neither of the Fichters were represented by counsel, and attempts to reach them were unsuccessful.