Child Support Guidelines are quirkier than you think
In Colorado, child support guidelines are based on a complicated calculation. It isn’t worth trying to calculate child support without the proper software – even for an experienced attorney or mathematician. The child support calculator software is used in virtually every case where support is required for a child, whether they are a child of a divorce, or a child of unmarried parents, or even if they are wards of the state. Outside of an agreement to waive the statutory support in favor of a deviation as agreed upon by the responsible parties, the courts generally are weary of deviating from the statutory formula.
To arrive at the amount for child support, several variables are taken into account, including: gross monthly income of both parties; the number of children; the amount of work related child care expenses; the amount of health insurance paid; the number of overnights spent with each parent; and other outside factors. These other factors include: the amount of spousal support paid; the number of other children from previous relationships; education related child care expenses; extraordinary medical expenses; and other extraordinary expenses or adjustments. All of these values are typically plugged into the calculator and the judge then prints the resulting calculation.
While the worksheet is incredibly useful and arrives at what appears to be a fair amount in many cases, due to the complicated nature of families, the worksheet does not always come up with an amount that makes sense. The variables each have their own quirky relationship to the equation and can combine to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting parent who thinks that the variables should be fair because they are statutory. As practitioners of family law we rely on the calculator for nearly every case involving minor children. Likewise, judges rely on the calculator when arriving at their findings and rulings on child support in virtually every domestic dispute involving minor children. While we know that the guidelines were adopted by the State Legislature over time, parts of the algorithm are simply unfair and appear to have been poorly thought out. Clever family law attorneys often exploit the quirky algorithm to their client’s benefit without necessarily disclosing their intent.
Father, a taxi driver who makes $4,000 per month, has multiple children from multiple mothers (say 1 child of his first relationship, 1 of his second relationship, and having finally “settled down" is married and has 2 children living at home with him).
The first Mother, who makes $2,000 per month, has a 15 year old of this relationship, and since she lives in Texas, she has also settled down and has another child of a different relationship, age 13. Father gets only a few weeks per year with this child. The children are on state health insurance.
The second Mother who makes $2,000 per month, has a 7 year old of this relationship and no other children. Father also doesn’t get more than a couple of weeks a year with this child.
The third Mother makes $2,000 per month, but has a 4 year old. The children don’t have any overnights with their father either. They hardly ever see the other children.
First Mother for child support purposes often gets to pretend that all after-born children don’t exist. Therefore, she gets $561.40 per month from Father as child support. Interestingly, if she didn’t have that 13 year old (which had nothing to do with this Father), she would get $545.36. She is on what is called Worksheet A, because he has less than 93 nights per year with the child. What would happen if he got 92 overnights per year with this child instead of two weeks per year? Nothing would change. How about 93 overnights? Then the answers would be $535 and $505 respectively. That’s a big change for only one overnight difference per year!
Second Mother also has one child of this Father, but her order would take into account not only his first child, but in part would take into account the fact that the First Mother then went and had a second child. The result of this calculation would be that Second Mother would receive 497.20.
The third Mother receives $449.07 in child support.
What if Father’s income was $2000 instead? 344; 286; 240. The first mother receives almost 50% more than the third mother.
What if all incomes were 2k per month, but the first Mother put her child into 1k/month of child care? $838.50; 179; 108. It is incredible what impact the first mother can have on the third mother based on her decisions. In this case, the first mother receives approximately 8 times what the third mother receives.
To further complicate matters, Colorado has two support worksheets, “Worksheet A" and “Worksheet B." Worksheet A is used in cases when one of the parents has the child for less than 93 overnights per year and Worksheet B is used where both parents have the children 93 or more overnights per year. The amount of child support is typically more when a worksheet A is used. It is unfortunate, but many focus their negotiations around the 92/93 overnight mark because the child support calculation can drastically change there is a shift between the worksheets.
The three purposes of the child support guidelines are presented in the statute: 1. To establish as state policy an adequate standard of support for children, subject to the ability of parents to pay; 2. To make awards more equitable by ensuring more consistent treatment of persons in similar circumstances, and 3. To improve the efficiency of the court process by promoting settlements and giving courts and the parties guidance in establishing levels of awards.
Culver Van Der Jagt and Megan Kahn