Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Increased Impact of Shared Parenting under the New Child Support Guidelines

In 2009, the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines added language acknowledging the increase in shared parenting by specifically defining how the Court should calculate child support differently when parents share parenting time "equally, or approximately equally."  The 2009 Guidelines recognized the sharing of parenting costs in shared parenting arrangements, determining the presumptive support amount "by calculating the child support guidelines twice, first with one parent as the Recipient, and second with the other parent as the Recipient. The difference in the calculations shall be paid to the parent with the lower weekly support amount."

Prior to this addition there was significant deviation in how different Judges handled the question of child support in shared parenting arrangements, ranging from no child support to standard child support guidelines, both extremes of which fail to recognize the financial impact of shared parenting.

However, the 2009 Guidelines still left questions as to how to handle cases that didn't fit a one-third or equal parenting time.  While the 2009 guidelines indicated that they were "based upon the child(ren) having a primary residence with one parent and spending approximately one-third of the time with the other parent" they didn't give guidance on what to do when a parent had less than one-third time.  Nor did they give guidance on where to draw the line between one-third time and "approximately equal."

The 2013 Guidelines make an effort to clarify these two issues, though arguably the result is still quite vague.

Less than one-third time:  The Task Force added to the new guidelines the following language:
If parenting time is less than one-third for the parent who is not the residential parent, the Court may consider an upward adjustment to the amount provided under the child support guidelines.
While this change recognizes the increased impact and financial costs on true "single parents" the direction given to the Courts is still less than clear.  In cases where the non-custodial parent is completely absent, this language will likely lead to Judges listening intently to arguments for increased support.  But when the parenting time works out to 25% instead of 33%, Judges will likely decline to exercise this additional discretion except in cases where a specific need is also shown.

In between 33% and 50% parenting time:  The Task Force also added to the new guidelines the following language:
Where parenting time and financial responsibility are shared in a proportion greater than one-third, but less than 50%, the child support guidelines shall be calculated first with one parent as the Recipient, and second as if the parties shared custody equally. The average of the base child support and the shared custody cross calculation shall be the child support amount paid to the Recipient.
This is essentially a compromise between the 33% and 50% calculations, but still doesn't give exact direction to parties or the Courts.  If a parent has 49% of the parenting time, is that "approximately equal" or "less than 50%".  Obviously, it is both.  So which paragraph applies?  The Court will likely provide some common sense rulings in these cases where the lines are blurred, and the parties may need to get guidance from the Court or use practical and experienced attorneys to assist them in reaching reasonable agreements.

While the direction to the Judges is not exactly clear with these two additions, the direction to parents is quite clear.  The more involved you are in your child's life, the lower your child support will be.  While tying these two issues together can create problems when negotiating parenting plans, this was definitely on purpose.  The Task Force clearly hopes that this language results in non-custodial parents making a greater effort to be involved in their child's life.  Even if it's for the wrong reasons, children benefit from having a strong relationship with both parents in most cases.

1 comment:

  1. The problem is that parents who want to be involved are not not given financial incentives to do so. In some cases sharing custody and the costs of child care, educational and medical expenses outweigh the difference between paying full child support and running the guidelines with both parents paying and subtracting the difference.

    The guidelines fail to look at the big picture which is the overall financial impact to raising children on your own. In a joint custody situation both parents share expenses however child support is intended to cover such expenses. Straight calculations result in a higher overall cost to the parent with the higher income in a joint custody situation versus if the parent with the lower income had full custody.

    The state should look at who is paying what and how much time each parent is spending with their children as opposed to doing a straight calculation. The parent paying child support ends up in double jeopardy paying both for support and expenses which support is intended to cover.

    Anyone who looks closely enough at the guidelines will realize it doesn't make financial sense for the higher income earner to have joint custody as often times the expenses outweigh the potential support.

    Perhaps the state should analyze what it costs to raise a child and then split the costs 50-50 between the parents in a joint custody arrangement as opposed to basing it on income alone.


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