Child support is the payment by one parent to the other. It’s purpose is to cover a share of the care, custody, and maintenance costs of the child(ren). As a divorce lawyer and custody attorney, I deal with child support matters on a daily basis. Every case with children up to 23 years of age has child support as an issue. It might even be an issue in guardianship cases once a child emancipates if a guardianship is appropriate. To calculate child support, a formula exists that computes the presumptive amount one parent will pay the other. While the calculation is often straightforward, complications can arise when a parent’s income is in question. Minor errors in a child support calculation can have a significant impact on the amount. It’s generally worth it to speak with a lawyer when there’s any question about a parent’s income.
Massachusetts Child Support Law
When parents divorce, the child support law allows the court to make certain decisions. These decisions involve the care, custody and maintenance of the minor child(ren). This includes a decision about the parent with whom the child(ren) will remain. Or, a court may decide if custody of the child(ren) should go to a third person. Under the law, the court will also order child support payments. The Massachusetts child support guidelines are the basis for child support payments.
The Child Support Guidelines
The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines set forth the amount of child support to be paid by one parent to the other. The guidelines apply in the case of both married and unmarried parents. They apply to both temporary and final orders of child support. And, they also apply in the case of support modifications. Typically, if one parent has primary physical custody of the child(ren), the other parent is responsible for child support payments. This is true even if both parents have legal custody.
Income, for purposes of the guidelines, is defined to include salary, wages, commissions and bonuses. It also includes pensions, rental income, self-employment and business income, and many other categories. If the court finds a party is unemployed or underemployed, it may choose to attribute income to that party. Under the guidelines, the court may consider other factors, like parenting time, minimum and maximum levels of support, and the relationship of support payments to other support obligations. Other support obligations can include alimony, among others.
Massachusetts Child Support Calculator
The judge will use the child support guidelines worksheet to decide the amount of child support. In doing so, the judge will consider both parties’ income. The guidelines were recently updated and the 2017 guidelines are available online.
Typically, the parent with physical custody will be responsible for day care expenses, but the amount of those expenses will be deducted from that parent’s income in calculating child support. As for health insurance expenses, each party may deduct from his or her income the amount paid for any individual or family plans.
Can the Parties Agree to a Child Support Amount?
It’s not uncommon for the parties to negotiate the child support amount before going to court or hiring lawyers. “Can’t we just agree on a child support amount?” is a question people often ask a custody lawyer. The answer is “sort of”. You may agree on the support amount, but the court will only order it if the judge finds that it’s fair and reasonable.
The court will generally presume that the child support amount that results after using the guidelines is the appropriate amount of child support. The parties may rebut this presumption and the court may vary the amount under the guidelines. However, to vary the amount the court must issue a written finding stating that following the guidelines would be unjust. So, if you agree on an amount close to the guidelines, the court will likely approve it. If it moves away from the guidelines, you better have a good reason to share before going in front of the judge.
How Do Other Child Expenses Factor?
In addition to child support, a court may order payments for child-related expenses. For instance, the court may order payment of educational expenses, extra-curricular activities, and camps. The court may also order payment of medical and dental expenses for the child, among other categories related to the care and custody of the child. The court may order one or both parents to pay those expenses. And, the court has discretion to apportion what percentage one parent pays over the other. If your kids have expenses you’ve historically split that the support will not cover, be sure to discuss that with your divorce lawyer or custody attorney. Also, you should prepare to present a reasonable argument for their inclusion under the order.
Modification of Support Payments
You can modify child support. To modify a child support order, there first needs to be a material change in circumstances. Second, that change must result in a difference between: 1) the current order; and, 2) an order if you apply the child support guidelines.
A material change in circumstances may include the loss of a job or income. If your income changes, for instance, and if the result of recalculating the income is a different amount, generally there’s a basis for modification. However, don’t expect your support to be reduced simply because you lost your job. While that may be a basis for reduction, the judge will likely want to know what efforts you’ve made to find new employment. Further, the judge may consider your experience, education, training and the like.
If you are the paying party seeking a reduction in support because you’ve lost your job, it’s typically a difficult request if you walk into court with a lawyer by your side. The judge, in that scenario, is likely to wonder why you are seeking to pay less support when you can clearly afford to hire a lawyer. A better solution to this particular problem is to hire a lawyer to help with strategy and preparation and then represent yourself in court. Every general rule has its exceptions, so speak with a lawyer to figure out what’s best for your case.
Child Support Payment Enforcement
Filing a complaint for contempt is the most effective way to make someone pay the support under an order. You can do this with or without a lawyer. And, if you receive your payments through the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, the Department will enforce the order for you, although it’s not the quickest process.
Filing a child support contempt complaint is not difficult. Essentially, it’s a one-page form on which you’ll complete all the basic case information. This information will include the parties’ names, the date of the final judgment or order, etc. Then you’ll explain the part of the agreement or order that the other party isn’t following. For example, you may say, “Father was ordered to pay Mother $792 a week commencing on August 3, 2017 and continuing every Friday thereafter until further order of the court.” Then you’ll explain what has happened. For example, “Father has not made a payment of child support since January 23, 2018 and currently owes $4,932 in back support.” The complaint can be filed at the probate and family court at which your case is filed.
At a hearing, the payor will need to convince the judge that he or she can’t make the support payments. For the recipient of support, having a lawyer at this hearing is helpful. It may be the difference between winning and losing. Further, a judge may order the person in contempt to pay money to the other party for legal fees.
If you have any questions about child support, you may also schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form here, and we will get back to you at our earliest opportunity.