2017 Child Support Guideline Changes in Plain English (kind of)

by Heather A O'Connor on Sep. 20, 2017

Divorce & Family Law Divorce & Family Law  Child Support Divorce & Family Law  Divorce 

Summary: The new child support guidelines went into effect on September 15, 2017. Here is a "plain old English" (or at least as close as possible) to what the changes are and what they might mean as the Court starts using them.

If you have kids and you’re walking into family court, you’re more than likely going to end up having to figure out how much child support is going to get paid in your family.

Every four years, Massachusetts puts together a task force that decides what is working and what is not working within the current child support calculations. The report was just released and the new guidelines will take effect on September 15, 2017. This will hopefully help you understand what you need to pay attention to when figuring out how much you will get or pay for child support.

I wrote a very detailed summary of the updates to the Guidelines, which you can find at http://bit.ly/2v7m3Mk. But I also wanted to post a summary that broke things down in plain old English so that everyone can understand it. So here we go:

Kids 18 and Over = Lowered Support

If you have children over the age of 18 but under the age of 23, pay attention here! Whether a child support order for children over the age of 18 remains up to the Judge, but if it is awarded, the new calculation will automatically reduce the amount paid for a child who is 18 or over by about 25%. The worksheet lays out the different calculations that will need to be used if you have two or more kids and/or a mix of kids both under and over 18. I expect many parents who are paying child support for kids who are 18 or over will be filing modifications to lower the child support amount. (If your child is 18 but is still attending high school, they will still be counted as under 18.)

College Expenses

If you’re married, no one says you have to contribute to your children’s college expenses. If you’re separated, you could be ordered to pay up to 50% of your child’s college expenses (tuition, fees, room & board) (and if you have a lot of money, you could potentially be ordered to pay more than 50%). The amount you can be obligated to pay is, for the most part though, capped at the in-state tuition amount charged by UMass Amherst regardless of where your child goes. (Currently around $17,000 per year). The new guidelines clarify that a contribution to college expenses is NOT presumptive (meaning automatic) but the Judge will need to consider various factors to determine how much each parent will contribute, if anything.  Unless your kids are really close to heading off to college, it’s probably going to be best to put off how much you’re going to pay toward college because situations can change so much and no one can predict the future.

Health Care/Child Care Expenses

This is probably the most confusing part of the new guidelines as the new calculation requires a lot more math, and most people don’t like math. The new calculation is meant to help share the burden of the health care and child care costs between you and your ex within the child support order.  In other words, capping and equalizing the burden can cause your child support order to increase or decrease based on how much you are each paying for these expenses. Each case is going to vary greatly depending upon the amounts paid and each of your incomes.

Deduction of Child Support for Other Kids

If you’re paying child support for another kid, you’re going to get to deduct that amount from your gross income. However, you’re going to have to show that you have an obligation to pay and that you’re actually paying the amount you’re trying to deduct. 

If you have new kids that are living with you (that are either biologically yours or adopted), you can deduct the amount you would have to be paying for them IF you WERE paying child support, BUT to do so, you’re going to have to produce documentation of what the other parent living with you earns so the calculations can be run to get the amount you can deduct. If you don’t want your new partner/spouse’s income to be brought into the case, you can kiss this deduction goodbye. Also, although the guidelines don’t say how this calculation would be run, I would guess it would be assuming 50/50 physical custody since you’re living together, which would affect the total amount you can claim.

Child Support & Alimony Calculations:

The new guidelines do not provide any further guidance relating to the award of both alimony and child support in cases where both you and your ex earn less than $250k per year. However, they do emphasize the ability of parents to use what’s called “unallocated support.” This means it’s not officially termed as either child support or alimony and, so long as it abides by the I.R.S. rules, could provide a tax deduction for the person paying and be taxable to the person getting the support. 

If there is going to be an alimony and child support award, unless the statute (G.L. c. 208 § 53(c)(2)) changes, the alimony will be calculated first, the amounts of income recalculated based on the alimony amount, and then child support calculated based on the recalculated incomes. However, this is at the Judge’s discretion. Most times, if you and your ex earn less than $250k combined, only a child support award will be entered. Talk to an attorney if your and your ex’s incomes are extremely different to make sure you’re protecting yourself.

Minimum Child Support:

The minimum amount of child support to be paid per week is increasing to a whopping $25 (up from $18) per week. I know – you won’t know what to do with all the extra money. However, if you think your ex is under-reporting or avoiding work to keep child support low – read the next section.

Imputation & Attribution of Income:

Unless you’re a family law attorney, these probably seem like the same thing – you add money to one person’s income even though they report they make less. The result is the same; the path to get there is different.

Imputation if income is going to happen where the person is getting either cash that is not being reported (think under-the-table pay) or a benefit instead of cash (think if a car is provided or they get gift cards as bonuses), but reduces that person’s household expenses.

Attribution of income is going to happen where the person is reporting that they are either not working or making a lot less than they should really be able to be make. 

You’re going to want to make sure you have a lawyer if you want to make these arguments because there’s a bunch of factors the Judge is going to have to consider before deciding the person’s income for the child support calculation should be increased to more than what they are reporting. 

Child Support & Parenting Time

There is no longer going to be a reduction in child support for the paying parent having more than 30% but less than 50% of the overall parenting time.

There are only two calculations that will be available to determine the child support amount: (1) if one parent has the majority of the time, the calculation will be run one time with one parent (the one with less time) being the paying parent and the other parent (the one that has the child most of the time) being the recipient of the child support; and (2) if the parents split parenting time pretty evenly, the child support calculations will be run twice, once with each parent in each position, then the lower amount is subtracted from the higher amount and the parent who was supposed to pay the higher amount pays the difference.

Now, if the parent who is going to be paying child support spends significantly LESS than 30% of the time with their child, the child support order can be increased to an amount more than what the guidelines calculate.

Deviation from the Guidelines Amount:

If there is a good reason for the Judge to increase or decrease the child support amount from what the guideline calculation comes up with (or if the Parties decide to agree to a higher or lower amount than what the guidelines calculate), there are certain things the Judge will need to consider as to whether the amount should be higher or lower. Make sure you look at and understand the Child Support Findings Deviation form if you want the Judge to order a different amount though.

Modifying a Prior Child Support Order:

You will be able to modify a prior child support order if any of the following are true: (1) the current amount and the new guidelines amount is different; (2) if health care is no longer available or the cost is unreasonable or has become available since the last order; or (3) there has been a material and substantial change in circumstances. 

Modifications and Prior Deviations:

If a prior child support order deviated from the guideline amount, a Judge will apply the same deviation standard if he/she finds that all three of the following are true: (1) the underlying reason the deviation was granted still exists (the facts are all still the same); (2) the deviated figure continues to be in the child’s best interest; AND (3) the guidelines amount would be unjust or inappropriate under the circumstances.

It will be interesting to see whether child support orders that were granted based on the paying parent having between 30-50% of the parenting time are allowed to be modified based solely on the new guidelines that do not allow for that calculation. It’s possible that it may be allowed and it’s possible that Judge’s will entertain that the order should remain the same as a deviation from the current amount if the only change to the situation is the new guidelines. 

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