Every four years, the Massachusetts child support guidelines Task Force assesses the child support guidelines. It makes recommended changes, collects comments from the public, and revises further. Then, it presents them to the Chief Justice of the Trial Court; the Chief Justice signs them into application on a date certain. The Task Force has just completed this process; the new 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines go into effect on September 15, 2017. We’ve dived in since their release yesterday. Here is our initial commentary, with links to the guidelines and supporting materials on mass.gov.
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines & Parenting Time
The 2013 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines had introduced, for the first time, an intermediate calculation for child support, to be used in circumstances where the “parenting time and financial responsibility are shared in a proportion greater than one-third, but less than 50%.” This intermediate calculation averaged the base child support guidelines calculation as if one parent was with the child or children approximately two-thirds of the time, with the calculation if the child or children spent approximately equal time with both parents.
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, effective September 15, 2017, eliminates that intermediate calculation. In its commentary, it explains why in somewhat scathing terms. “The Task Force agreed that the provision relating to these circumstances needed to be eliminated. The Task Force considered public comment, attorney and judicial experience, the 2008 Report of the Child Support Guidelines Task Force, and the Final Report of the 2012 Task Force when making this determination. The 2012 change [to create the intermediate calculation] increased litigation and acrimony between parents, shifted the focus from a parenting plan that is in the best interests of the children to a contest about a parenting plan that attempts to reduce a child support order, and failed to create the consistency in child support orders that it sought to create.”
Child support calculations:
The 2017 Guidelines leave two methods for the calculation of child support. 1. Basic Calculation. The basic calculation presumes that the children have a primary residence with one parent; it assumes they spend approximately one-third of the time with the other parent. There is a rebuttable presumption that the child support calculation should be the child support order. 2. Cross Guidelines. “[w]here two parents expect to or do share equally, or approximately equally, the financial responsibility and parenting time for the children, the child support order shall be determined by calculating the guidelines worksheet twice, first with one parent as the recipient, and second with the other parent as the recipient.” In short, calculate child support both ways; the difference is the presumed child support order.
Of note is retention of the consideration of financial responsibility in the cross guidelines calculation; in contrast, it is not in the basic calculation. Further, the 2017 Guidelines places an increased emphasis on the ability of a court to deviate from the Guidelines. The amount that the Guidelines calculates is still the presumed order; however, the Task Force placed additional emphasis on the ability to deviate for the best interests of the child.
Health/Vision/Dental Insurance Costs
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, effective September 15, 2017, adopt the historical approach in deducting the costs of child care, health insurance, dental insurance, and vision insurance from a parent’s available income for purposes of calculating child support. The Task Force then added a second step, so that parents are sharing these costs. (This is at least somewhat in proportion to their respective incomes).
Let’s say that that Pat and Dana have one child. Pat is the primary wage-earner and earns $2,000 per week. Pat’s employer-provided health and dental insurance costs $100 per week. Dana earns $1,000 per week. The child lives primarily with Dana, spending approximately one-third of the time with Pat. Under the 2013 Guidelines, Pat would have presumed child support to Dana of $362 per week. Under the 2017 Guidelines, Pat would have presumed child support payment to Dana of $325. It adjusts twice for Pat’s contributions towards health and dental insurance (and vision insurance and child care costs).
When the payor is providing for the cost of health insurance, dental insurance, vision insurance, and/or the cost of child care, it would be beneficial for him or her to speak with an attorney to discuss whether it is advisable to modify his or her child support obligation.
Children Between the Ages of 18 and 23 and Contribution Towards the Cost of College
In addressing the payment of child support for children that are over the age of eighteen and have graduated from high school, the 2013 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines instructed that a “Court shall exercise its discretion in ordering support and/or college contribution. The Court shall consider the reason for continued residence with and dependence on the Recipient [of child support], the child’s academic circumstances, living situation, the available resources of the parents, the costs of post-secondary education for the child, the availability of financial aid and the allocation of these costs, if any, between the parents. Contribution to college costs is not presumptive, but is based upon the above factors. If a specific college contribution is ordered, this contribution shall be considered by the Court in setting the weekly support order, if any.”
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, effective September 15, 2017, provide more guidance for parents, judges, and attorneys, on how to address the issue of children that have graduated from high school but are not yet emancipated for purposes of a child support order or an order for a parent or parents to contribute towards the cost of that child’s college education. The 2017 Guidelines differentiate between children under 18 and children over 18 in the formula itself. They also transform Table B (used for adjusting the formula on the number of children in the family) from two columns to five. The result is a 25% adjustment downward for children over the age of 18.
What are the main changes and considerations?
As explained in the Commentary to the 2017 Guidelines, this considers the possibility that children of that age group might not be living full-time at a parent’s residence; they may live at a post-secondary educational institution. They also have the ability to work and contribute towards household expenses. The 2017 Guidelines explain that courts retain discretion in awarding child support for children eighteen to twenty-three. The 2017 Guidelines also eliminate as factors for consideration in setting an order for a child over the age of 18 “the costs of post-secondary education for the child,” and “the availability of financial aid and the allocation of these costs, if any, between the parents.”
On the issue of contributing towards college expenses, the 2017 Guidelines adopts a position that many Probate & Family Court judges have articulated. This issue remains as not presumptive, but reincorporates the factors of “the cost of post-secondary education” and “the availability of financial aid,” among others, in considering whether to order a parent to contribute towards the cost of college.
The Guidelines established a presumptive cap on the contribution to pay for college; it is 50% of the cost of undergraduate in-state costs for the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This includes fees, tuition, and room and board. This limit can be exceeded if, “the Court enters written findings that a parent has the ability to pay a higher amount.” Lastly, the 2017 Guidelines continue the 2013 Guidelines’ consideration of the amount of a child support order if also ordering a parent’s or both parents’ contribution towards the cost of college, and vice versa.
Read more information about additional changes and considerations in the 2017 Guidelines in our follow-up blog post. If you have any questions about child support or family law in general or if you are looking for an experienced Newburyport or Andover divorce lawyer or family law attorney, our experienced family law attorneys might be able to help. Don’t hesitate to call our office or schedule a free consultation with us.