How will you calculate child support in a case where the dependent spouse does not have physical custody and the incomes of the parties are grossly disparate?
With the new Alimony Reform in Massachusetts taking effect on March 1, 2012, we have been hearing this question a lot. Although it is an unusual situation to have the custodial parent also be the higher earning spouse, it does happen.
Under the new Alimony statute:
"For purposes of setting an alimony order, the court shall exclude from its income calculation:
(1) Capital gain income and dividend and interest income which derives from assets equitably divided between the parties under Section 34; and
(2) Gross income which the court has already considered for setting a child support order whether pursuant to the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines or otherwise; provided that nothing in this section shall limit the court’s discretion to cast a presumptive child support order under the Child Support Guidelines in terms of unallocated or undifferentiated alimony and child support."Since the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines presumptively apply up to a total gross income of $250,000, this section means that cases where the total gross income does not exceed $250,000 there won't be any income leftover to calculate alimony (absent some deviation factor).
While this could mean less overall support for cases where the custodial parent is also the lower wage-earner, the impact is even more significant when the non-custodial parent is the lower wage-earner. While the non-custodial parent who earns less gets a break on child support, it seems unfair to say they never qualify for alimony if the total gross income of the parties is less than $250,000.
For example, consider the following sample case:
Mom has been the primary care parent and is a doctor who owns her own practice and has reasonable control over her hours and earns $200,000 per year. Dad is a CNA who works odd hours and therefore has not spent as much time with the children. He earns $35,000 per year. The parties have been married for 15 years and have two children, ages 4 and 5.
The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines will require that Dad pay Mom $94 per week in child support (approx. 14% of his income).
Since all of Mom and all of Dad's income were used in calculating child support a pure reading of the statute leaves nothing left to calculate alimony. However, if there were no children this would clearly be an alimony case. One argument in favor of this reading is that Mom who is the custodial parent in this case will be able to provide a better household for the children based on her higher income and no alimony. The counter to that argument, though, is that keeping the Dad from having a similar lifestyle could damage his ability to spend time with the children and their desire to spend time at Dad's house, thereby encouraging Dad to be less involved rather than more involved in the children's lives.
It is unknown at this point how the trial courts and the appeals court will read this section. Many practitioners that we have spoken to believe Judges will look to find a way around this "unfair" result, and use deviation factors to allow them to award alimony to the lower-earning spouse in a case like this (or at least reduce or eliminate child support).
The problem with these cases is that they are often not as clear cut as the example above, and often will involve prejudicial judgments made about the low-earning father or the non-custodial mother (i.e. assuming something is wrong with them). Until the Appeals Court or SJC rules on this type of case we won't know for sure how this case will be dealt with, and we expect that the lower courts will vary in their application of the statute to these types of cases.