If you’re in the midst of a divorce action or if even if you’re contemplating a divorce or separating from your partner, you’re going to have some questions. If you have minor children, it’s absolutely imperative that you get the right information relating to your children.
One of the most important questions we get relates to how children are cared for financially after two parents separate. This is what child support is for. There’s a lot of myths about what child support is and is not, how much child support is, and how long it will last. We’ll try to clarify a lot of the issues involved in child support in this article.
WHAT IS CHILD SUPPORT?
Simply put, child support is the payment of money from one parent to another for the benefit of an unemancipated child (we’ll talk about emancipation a bit later on in this article). Child support is not tax deductible to the payor and not includable as income to the recipient. Child support is also typically calculated and paid on a weekly basis, but that can be changed depending on the specific facts in a given case.
WILL THERE BE A CHILD SUPPORT ORDER IN MY CASE?
If you have unemancipated children and you are separating or divorcing the other parent, in all likelihood there will be a child support order payable from one parent to the other parent.
WHAT KINDS OF EXPENSES DOES CHILD SUPPORT COVER?
Pretty much all kinds of expenses. The parent that receives child support is supposed to use those funds to help pay for the day to day living expenses of the child under their care. Child support is meant to help pay for some, but not necessarily all, the costs related to things like clothes, food, mortgage costs, gas, cell phones, school supplies, and on and on.
CAN’T THE PARENTS JUST AGREE TO SPLIT ALL THE EXPENSES FOR THE CHILDREN?
Not really and I don’t think I’d even advise reaching such an arrangement. If you and your spouse are going to split all those expenses moving forward, that means one parent incurs the cost, keeps the documentation (e.g. receipts and invoices) and then asks for reimbursement later on. Think about all the expenses you pay on a daily basis that relate to your children. If you and your former spouse are going to split all those expenses, that means that every time you or they go to the store, buy a pair of shoes or a pencil, you’ll have to keep a log of what was spent and then send it over to the other side. And you’ll have to do that pretty regularly – weekly, monthly or quarterly. What if the other side objects to some of the claimed expenses? Our job as family law attorneys is to streamline things for our clients, not make things more difficult. Believe us, it’s much easier to simply set a child support amount that everyone can budget on.
That isn’t to say that parents don’t share some costs. Divorced and separated parents typically are required to share uninsured medical expenses for the children as well as extracurricular expenses on behalf of the children. The parents split these expenses in addition to a child support order. When a child gets older and starts considering college, it’s also possible that the parents are required to split the college education expenses. We’ll talk about that in a future article.
HOW MUCH CHILD SUPPORT SHOULD BE PAID?
Massachusetts, like every other state, is required to establish guidelines for setting the amount of child support. Those guidelines are called, fittingly enough, the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines (LINK: https://www.mass.gov/info-details/child-support-guidelines). The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines (we’ll call them the Guidelines for the purposes of this article) are broken out into two sections. There’s the written guidelines (LINK: https://www.mass.gov/doc/2018-child-support-guidelines/download) which are like a set of rules and commentary on how child support should be calculated. Then there’s the child support worksheet (LINK: https://www.mass.gov/doc/2018-child-support-guidelines-worksheet-cjd-304/download) which litigants and the court uses to calculate the specific amount of child support to be paid in any case.
There’s a lot of different ways people interpret the Guidelines. Basically, litigants and the court use the written guidelines and the facts at hand to complete the worksheet. The number that results is the presumptive number that the court will apply – meaning that the court will use the Guidelines to determine a child support amount and will only deviate from that amount in extraordinary circumstances.
In order to calculate the amount of child support to be paid in your case, try out the Guidelines worksheet (LINK: https://www.mass.gov/doc/2018-child-support-guidelines-worksheet-cjd-304/download).
WHAT KINDS OF ISSUES AFFECT HOW MUCH CHILD SUPPORT IS PAID?
There are several issues that affect how much child support will be paid and they all make sense. They include the following:
- Number of children: the more children, the higher the amount of child support
- Ages of the children: the older the children, the more likely that child support will be reduced
- Custodial arrangement: the more time the children spend with the child support payor under the parenting plan, the more child support will be decreased
- Income for each parent: the higher the income for the child support payor, the higher the child support order; the higher the amount of income for the child support recipient, the lower the child support order (for the most part)
- Amounts paid for child care and health, dental, and vision insurance: the amounts paid towards these expenses are typically deducted from the income used to determine child support
HOW DOES THE PARENTING PLAN AFFECT CHILD SUPPORT?
Of course, there are all types of parenting plans. The Guidelines are constructed with two basic parenting time scenarios in mind: 1) where the parents share the children equally; and 2) where the child support recipient has the children for 2/3rds of the time with the payor having the children for 1/3rd of the time. There’s also adjustments for when different children from the same parents are subject to different parenting plans. But overall the amount of time the child support payor has with the children will affect the amount of child support to be paid. Typically, if a payor has more parenting time with the children, that will decrease the child support amount.
This obviously leads to a number of different issues. Many times we’ve seen one parent who is clearly not the primary caretaker for the children try to assert as much, strictly for the purposes of getting more in the way of parenting time and thus lowering their child support obligation. If you feel that will be the case with your spouse, speak to a family law attorney right away.
WHAT KINDS OF INCOME ARE CONSIDERED FOR CHILD SUPPORT?
Simply put, all kinds. The whole purpose of child support is to make sure that unemancipated children are cared for by both parents. Therefore, very few sources of income are “off the table” when it comes to child support. The Guidelines list out 29 different forms of income as subject to a child support calculation, ending with “any other form of income or compensation” that wasn’t already listed.
ARE BONUSES CONSIDERED AS PART OF CHILD SUPPORT?
Absolutely. But just because all forms of income are considered for child support, that doesn’t mean that one type of income is treated the same as another form of income. Take for instance weekly income received through employment. This is the “bread and butter” of a child support order. We would take this weekly gross amount and input it into the worksheet (LINK: https://www.mass.gov/doc/2018-child-support-guidelines-worksheet-cjd-304/download) to get a child support order. We wouldn’t necessarily do the same thing with bonus income, since bonuses are usually only given once or twice throughout the year. Depending on the case, we might have child support paid on bonuses on an “if as and when paid” basis, meaning that when the child support payor gets a bonus, a portion of that is calculated as part of child support.
WHAT IF ONE PARENT COULD EARN MORE INCOME?
The Guidelines provide that “income may be attributed where a finding has been made that either parent is capable of working and is unemployed or underemployed.” Imagine that Parent A works as a stockbroker $100,000.00 a year and is going to be required to pay child support to Parent B. Right before the parties separate, Parent A stops working as a stockbroker and starts volunteering at an after-school art program, earning no income. Noble as it is to volunteer, Parent A owes a duty to their children and that means continuing to maximize their earning capacity. In that situation, it’s entirely possible the court would order Parent A to pay child support as if they were still earning $100,000.00 a year because that is what their earning capacity is.
WHEN DOES CHILD SUPPORT END?
Child support ends when the minor children covered by the order emancipate. Put another way, child support covers unemancipated children. It’s important to note the difference between minors and unemancipated children. A minor is simply a child who hasn’t reached age 18. An unemancipated child is a child who may or not be a minor who is still financially dependent on their parents. You can have a child who is no longer a minor but is still unemancipated – such as a child who graduated high school and is in college. Child support, for the large majority of children, ends when a child emancipates. When is that? That operates on a sliding scale. If a child enters the military, they emancipate. If a child gets married, they emancipate. If the child graduates high school and have no plans for college and get a job, they emancipate. But if a child gets a summer job, that’s not necessarily emancipation. Keep in mind, it’s also possible that a child can emancipate, then unemancipated, like if that child re-entered college.
CAN CHILD SUPPORT BE CHANGED?
Child support can and is often changed. We call this a modification (LINK: Modification article). In order to modify child support, the party seeking to modify needs to demonstrate that there’s been a material and substantial change in circumstances, such as one party losing their job. Some child support modification cases might be easier than others. You should absolutely speak with a family law attorney if you are considering seeking to modify a child support obligation or the other party wants to modify.