After completing its quadrennial review, the Child Support Guidelines Task Force recently revised the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, and the “new” Guidelines will go into effect on September 15, 2017.
Okay, so this was not the summer blockbuster of 2017, but the Child Support Guidelines impact a lot of people in Massachusetts. If you pay or receive child support, I know what you are thinking right now — “Will I pay (receive) more (less) under the new Guidelines?” I don’t know, but you can download this fillable calculation form to find out.
The Child Support Guidelines is essentially the formula that is used in domestic cases to determine weekly child support. The Guidelines formula uses each parent’s income, along with certain expenses and the number of children involved, to determine the presumptive amount of child support that the non-custodial parent should pay to the custodial parent.
Now, let’s dig in and see what is old and new in the “new” Child Support Guidelines.
1. Income is still income. Although the new Guidelines add language about a Probate Court judge’s ability to consider evidence of unreported income, there is little change — as a practical matter — to the definition of what is included as “income” under the Guidelines.
In my experience, judges have always considered competent evidence of unreported income, or a parent’s ability to earn income, when calculating support. Also, the hot-button issue of overtime and secondary job income remains exactly where it was under the prior version of the Guidelines. That is, if overtime and secondary job income was not included in an original child support order, there is a presumption that the judge will NOT include that income in a modified order for the same family.
Also, the Court will continue to carefully examine the financial statements of self-employed parties. The 2017 Guidelines do include a lengthier discussion (as compared to prior versions) on how a judge should examine the claimed income and business expenses of a self-employed individual and the undistributed earnings of that individual’s S corporation. In my experience, however, this is not a major change from prior practice. When counsel challenges an opposing party’s claimed self-employment income, and provides credible evidence that the party is under-reporting this income, judges will evaluate this evidence and adjust support orders based on their findings concerning a party’s true available income.
2. No more counting hours (thank you, Task Force.) The new Guidelines eliminate the following paragraph (which was added to the 2013 Guidelines):
Where parenting time and financial responsibility are shared in a proportion greater than one-third, but less than 50%, the child support guidelines shall be calculated first with one parent as the Recipient, and second as if the parties shared custody equally. The average of the base child support and the shared custody cross calculation shall be the child support amount paid to the Recipient.
Personally, I am not sad to see the elimination of this language from the “new” Guidelines. After this language was added to the 2013 Guidelines, focus often shifted to counting the number of hours a child spent with each parent, and discussing whether those hours were in school, daycare, sleeping, et cetera. Too much time and effort was spent on fighting over a few hours (or a few dollars) a week, instead of focusing on how parents can create the best possible schedule for their children.
The Task Force did not change the method of calculating support where parents share physical custody — that is, where the children reside in each parent’s household for an equal amount of time. If the parties make roughly the same amount of money, then neither party will pay support to the other in a shared physical custody arrangement. Otherwise, support is determined by first using the Guidelines to calculate what party A would pay party B if party B had sole physical custody of the children; and, then, with party B paying party A. The higher wage earner will generally pay weekly support to the other parent in an amount that equals the difference between the two different calculations (although in a lower amount than that parent would pay if the second parent had sole physical custody.)
3. Daycare is expensive, and so is health insurance. When calculating the parties’ income under the Guidelines, the costs of daycare and health insurance are deducted from the income of the parent paying those expenses. This is nothing new. Under the new Guidelines, however, the Court must also make an additional adjustment that captures a percentage of what each parent pays for health insurance and/or daycare. This adjustment may reduce or increase the payor’s weekly support obligation, depending on which parent is paying the expense and the disparity in income levels between the two parents.
4. And then there’s college. . . . If you think daycare is expensive, talk to the parents of college-aged children.
The new Guidelines recognize this, as well as the fact that many parents — especially after absorbing the financial strain typical of separation and/or divorce — cannot afford to send their children to college without incurring significant debt. Consequently, the New Guidelines emphasize that a judge may or may not order parents to contribute to college expenses (although, in my experience, most do order some contribution, either directly to the college or through the continued payment of support to the other parent who is, in turn, ordered to contribute to college expenses.) When college contribution is ordered, the Task Force suggests a ceiling on the amount, adding the following language to the Guidelines:
No parent shall be ordered to pay an amount in excess of fifty percent of the undergraduate, in-state resident costs of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, unless the Court enters written findings that a parent has the ability to pay a higher amount. Costs for this purpose are defined as mandatory fees, tuition, and room and board for the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
The UMass/Amherst ceiling, and the costs associated with other institutions, is published in the Published Annual College Costs Before Financial Aid. (I would look, but I’m afraid. . . .)
The Task Force has indicated in the “new” Guidelines that the UMass/Amherst ceiling is not mandatory, and is not intended to apply to children already enrolled in post-secondary education before the effective date of the guidelines or to parents who are financially able to pay for college using assets or other resources.
5. 25% Support reduction for children 18 to 23. The new Guidelines emphasize a point that has been the subject of disagreement among family law attorneys, judges and especially among the parents of children over 18 — namely, that the Guidelines are intended to apply to children ages 18 to 23 if the Court determines that support should be paid for the over-18 child. If support is ordered for a child over the age of 18, then the Guidelines requires a percentage-based reduction in the presumptive amount of weekly support. The percentage is based on the number and ages of the children for whom support is ordered. For instance, if support is ordered on only one child, and that child is 18 or older (and has graduated from high school), then there will be an automatic 25% reduction to the weekly support obligation. According to the Task Force, this reduction is appropriate “as it takes into consideration factors typical of this age group [including that]. . . the child may be living away at school. . . or the child may be living at home and is not enrolled in [college] and should be working and contributing to the household expenses.”
In sum, there are several impactful changes in the new Child Support Guidelines, although much has remained the same. Again, whether and how these changes impact your child support order depends on your specific circumstances, but you can run some calculations here.
Finally, a word of caution, especially for child support payors — you cannot unilaterally change your child support order, even if your child’s other parent agrees to the change. Agreements that are not approved by a probate court judge are not legally enforceable. Consequently, if you believe that your child support obligation should be modified, then you need to file a Complaint for Modification.
Of all of the issues involved in a domestic case, child support is likely the most important to your family’s day-to-day life. The current Child Support Guidelines apply in many, but not all, situations and each case should be evaluated based on its own circumstances.
Click here if you would like to speak with me about your own divorce or family law issue, and thanks for reading.