Massachusetts Child Support Orders in High Income Cases - Searching for Guidelines
The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines (the "Guidelines") essentially consist of a mathematical formula that calculates a presumptive amount of child support that should be paid in any given case based upon the gross incomes of the parties, the number of children whose support is at issue and other relevant factors. Nevertheless, the Guidelines "are not meant to apply where the combined annual gross income of the parties exceeds $250,000.00. In cases where income exceeds this limit, the court should consider the award of support at the $250,000.00 level as the minimum presumptive order. Additional amounts of child support may be awarded in the Court's discretion." Child Support Guidelines, Part II, Section C (2009). Notwithstanding the significant overhaul of the Guidelines which took place in 2009, there remains little guidance for attorneys and judges in fashioning an appropriate level of child support where the income levels of one or both of the parties exceed the Guidelines. Nevertheless, based upon case law in Massachusetts regarding such matters, it appears well-settled that awards of child support in cases outside the Guidelines require an in-depth analysis of and focus upon the "reasonable needs" of the child in light of the available resources of the parents and their respective standards of living. Our appellate court recently reaffirmed the principle that child support orders in cases which exceed the Guidelines cap should be premised upon an analysis of the child's reasonable needs. Pearson v. Pearson, 52 Mass. App. Ct. 156 (2001). In so doing, however, an analysis of a child's reasonable needs does not preclude the court from taking into account the higher standard of living of the noncustodial parent in determining the child's needs. Brooks v. Piela, 61 Mass. App. Ct. 731 (2004); contrast Smith v. Edelman, 68 Mass. App. Ct. 549 (2007) (request for increased child support properly denied where there was no material disparity in standard of living in parents' households and children's needs were being adequately met). Nevertheless, a child's needs must always be tempered by the so-called "Three Pony Rule" which stands for the proposition that "no child needs three ponies" and "humorously summarizes the many concerns with the seemingly exorbitant child support demands or calculations that abound in cases involving high income payors." K. Hogan, Child Support in High Income Cases, 17 J. Am. Acad. Matrim. Law. 349 (2001). Of course, because child support payments are neither taxable to the recipient nor tax-deductible by the payor, the availability in any given case of designating child support payments as tax-deductible "alimony" or "unallocated alimony and child support" under Sec. 71 of the Internal Revenue Code may play a significant role in determining the reasonableness of an obligor's support obligation. For example, a child support obligation of $60,000.00 (which is necessarily paid with "net, after tax" income) has the net effect of absorbing as much as $100,000.00 of an obligor's gross, pre-tax income; while a tax-deductible "unallocated alimony and child support" obligation of $60,000.00 actually absorbs as little as $36,000.00 of an obligor's net, after-tax income (assuming for illustration purposes a combined marginal state/federal/payroll tax obligation of 40%). As such, these income tax ramifications should be given appropriate consideration when fashioning the tax treatment of any such award, as effective tax-planning may result in significant savings to the parties. Obviously, reasonable persons can and often do differ when it comes to determining what is, in fact, the appropriate level of child support to be paid by a non-custodial parent in any given case based upon an analysis of the child's reasonable needs. As such, effective advocacy by one's attorney often plays a significant role in the ultimate resolution of this very important issue.