Every four years, the Massachusetts child support guidelines task force assesses the child support guidelines, makes recommended changes, collects comments from the public, revises further, and then presents them to the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, who signs them into application, typically going into effect on a specific future date. This process has just completed, with the new 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines going into effect on September 15, 2017. We’ve dived in since they were released yesterday and here is our initial commentary, with links to the guidelines and supporting materials on mass.gov. Enjoy and feel free to submit comments below.
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines & Parenting Time
The 2013 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines 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 Guidelines, effective September 15, 2017, eliminates that intermediate calculation, and in its commentary, 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.”
The 2017 Guidelines leave two methods through which child support should be calculated:
1. Basic Calculation – the basic calculation presumes that the children have a primary residence with one parent and are spending 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, and the difference is the presumed child support order.
Of note is the retention of the consideration of the financial responsibility in the cross guidelines calculation, and 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, but the Task Force seemed to place additional emphasis on the ability to deviate from that figure if it is in the best interests of the child. More on the issue of deviating from the 2017 Guidelines in a future post.
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines & Proportional Sharing of Child Care, Health/Vision/Dental Insurance Costs
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines continues with the historical approach of 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 has further added a second step, so that parents are sharing, at least somewhat in proportion to their respective incomes, these costs.
Let’s take an example to illustrate this point. 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’s presumed child support payment to Dana is $362 per week. Under the 2017 Guidelines, Pat’s presumed child support payment to Dana, which adjusts twice for Pat’s contributions towards health insurance and dental insurance (as well as vision insurance and child care costs), would be $325. So, in this particular example, the payor’s child support payment goes down using the new 2017 calculation.
When the payor in an existing child support order 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.
The 2017 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines & 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 provided 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, provides more guidance for parents, judges, and attorneys, in 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 differentiates between children under 18 and children over 18 in the formula itself. Table B, which is used for adjusting the formula on the number of children in the family, has transformed from two columns to five:
Table B in the 2013 Guidelines
Table B in the 2017 Guidelines
The result is a 25% adjustment downward for children over the age of 18. As explained in the Commentary to the 2017 Guielines, his considers the possibility that children of that age group might not be living full-time at a parent’s residence if living at a post-secondary educational institution, and have the ability to work and contribute towards household expenses.
The 2017 Guidelines explains that courts retain discretion in awarding child support for children between the ages of eighteen and 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 establishes a presumptive cap on the contribution to pay for college of 50% of the cost on undergraduate in-state costs of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, including 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 continues the 2013 Guidelines’ consideration of the amount of a child support order if also ordering a parent or both parents to contribute towards the cost of college, and vice versa.
The revision and update of the child support guidelines is a significant event in Massachusetts divorce and family law and understanding the differences between the guidelines currently in effect and those which will go into effect on September 15, 2017 is critical for any case involving children, up to the age of 23. We’ll continue to post helpful content and commentary on the updated law and will continue to provide free consultations to clients and potential clients who need this issue assessed in their cases. To schedule a free consultation, contact the main office at 978-225-9030 or schedule a consult from our home page.