How Massachusetts Courts Determine Child Support Obligations
Parents often ask how much child support they will receive or pay. This question can become complicated, but general guidelines apply to most situations. Although Massachusetts courts are given the discretion to reach an appropriate result when answering this question, judges usually consider and rely on Child Support Guidelines (CSGs) when making their decisions. Although parents can argue for a different result due to unusual circumstances, and can attempt to secure court approval of their support agreements, the CSGs are presumed to determine what levels of payments parents can expect based upon their relative income levels.
Assumptions and Limitations of the CSGsThe CSGs apply to children who are 18 or under, or still in high school. Other Massachusetts laws address support obligations for children above 18 or in college, and in these situations, courts have enhanced powers to decide support orders.
The Child Support Guidelines are intended to apply to Massachusetts families with an annual income of less than $250,000. Consult with an attorney about changes in child support for that portion of annual income in excess of $250,000. On the other end of the financial spectrum, courts make adjustments to income for parents who are incarcerated, or who are able to work but do not. These adjusted income levels, while fictional, can then be plugged into the CSGs formula to compute a support amount. The minimum support order is usually $80 per month.
The CSGs assume the children will have a primary residence, and will spend approximately one-third of the time with the other parent. If the parents share time equally, the CSGs are calculated for each parent under the assumption the other parent is the recipient, and then the difference between the two is paid to the parent with the lower weekly support amount. Departures from the CSGs often occur when (1) the parenting plan differs from the 2/3-1/3 model; (2) children have special needs or aptitudes; (3) the family has extraordinary medical, travel, or other parenting expenses; or (4) other unusual circumstances would make an application of the CSGs inappropriate or inconsistent with the best interests of the children.
The Basic Calculation for Child SupportThe definition of income for the purpose of calculating child support is very broad. CSGs income includes salary, overtime, tips, commissions, bonuses, interest, dividends, net rents, unemployment benefits, and social security benefits not due to a child's disability. It usually does not include benefits from income based public assistance programs.
Each parent provides the court with a CSGs Worksheet. This worksheet tells the judge the parent's weekly income, and then subtracts the cost of child care, health insurance, dental and vision insurance, and support obligations for children unrelated to the other parent. These amounts of Available Income are added, so each parents' percentage of Combined Available Income can be determined. From that, the total combined support amount can be calculated. For families with more than one and up to five children, the paying parent's Weekly Support Amount is multiplied by a factor of 1.25 to 1.48. The receiving parent's percentage of Combined Available Income is then subtracted from the Weekly Support Amount to arrive at the paying parent's Adjusted Weekly Support Amount.
Modifications of Child Support PaymentsIf a parent has had a material change in circumstances, they may petition the court at any time for an order modifying existing child support obligations if: (1) there is an inconsistency between the current support order and the amounts that would be due under the CSGs; (2) previously available health insurance becomes unavailable or prohibitively expensive; (3) health insurance becomes available at a reasonable cost; or (4) any other material and substantial change in circumstances.
Tax ConsequencesAs a general rule, child support is not tax deductible by the parent who pays, and not taxable to the parent who receives the support. Parents remain responsible for providing the court with the tax consequences of a proposed child support order, so you should get legal and financial advice before you go to court. Another advantage of this advice is that lawyers may have some flexibility in how best to characterize payments as alimony or child support, so as to improve tax consequences for their client, and for their client's family.
This article is intended to help you by providing some basic background information. Please realize that this article provides only a starting point when considering child support. It does not constitute or contain legal advice, or attempt to predict your results in court. Every situation is different, and litigation is an inherently risky process. So, please contact us at (617) 963-3599 or [email protected] to discuss your unique goals and circumstances in greater detail. We look forward to hearing from you.