Probate Court Denies Enforcement of Child Support Obligation

A never ending issue facing the court system is the establishment and enforcement of an individual’s obligation to support his or her minor children.  A question which should be diligently explored in this area is the enforcement of that obligation if a parent dies prior to fulfilling all of his or her obligations.  A recent New Jersey case, In The Matter of the Estate of Keith O’Malley, Deceased, No. A-3560-14T1 (App. Div. June 1, 2016), has made it clear that the answer will likely not be found in the probate courts.

Keith O’Malley fathered a son out of wedlock with Renee Brozowski in August 2000.  The child resided with his mother in the Albany, NY area while Keith was a resident of Spring Lake, NJ.   In 2008, Keith, who was a multi-millionaire, entered into a Child Support Agreement, which in relevant part, called for monthly payments of $3,000 in child support, payment of childcare and unreimbursed medical expenses and $7,500 annual payments to an education fund.  These obligations would continue until the child attained the age of 21.

On June 1, 2014, Keith died unexpectedly at the age of 36.  The estate took a position that his obligation to support his son ceased at his death.  In response, Renee filed an action to set aside or reform Keith’s Will as Keith’s Will disinherited his son.  She asserted a variety of grounds including mistake, undue influence, lack of capacity and breach of contract.  The court dismissed all of the claims with the exception of breach of contract.   In doing so, it held that the trial court should ascertain whether or not the parties intended the agreement to survive death.

The key takeaway from this case is that child support and other family law agreements do not necessarily survive death.  Although a court action may preserve them, it is clear such protection is not automatic.  In the event one enters into an agreement for any form of alimony, property distribution, or child support, he or she should affirmatively address the survival of such obligations upon the death of the party responsible for such payments.

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