Background – Updating the MA Child Support Guidelines
Updated child support guidelines go into effect in Massachusetts on September 15, 2017. Child support guidelines must be reviewed every four years per federal statute. In Massachusetts, past practice has been that a task force is appointed and chaired by the Chief Justice of the Probate & Family Court, currently the Honorable Angela M. Ordonez. Other members included divorce and family law attorneys, other court personnel, a representative from the MA Department of Revenue, and some non-attorney representatives (including State Representative Shawn Dooley of the 9th Norfolk District). There were also two economic consultants on the task force. The Task Force completed a report, dated June 2017 but not readily available until more recently.
Some people have been vocal critics of this process, see this article by Attorney Jason Owens of Hingham. Attorney Owens claims the process is secretive and lacks transparency; but there is an opportunity for anyone to provide commentary or information to the Task Force, although as Attorney Owens points out there are no public hearings. Task Force members volunteer their services to this time-consuming process and review a substantial amount of information, and must balance several competing interests and factors. The final child support guidelines are approved by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court, the Honorable Paula M. Carey.
New 2017 Child Support Guidelines – The Final Countdown
Effective September 15, 2017, the revised MA child support guidelines usher in a number of important changes to child support in Massachusetts. To provide additional clarity, the new guidelines include commentary explaining the reasoning of the Task Force (TF) and direction as to how the TF believes the guidelines should be interpreted and applied.
Overview of what’s new with the 2017 revised guidelines:
1. Increase in the Minimum Child Support Payment
Previously, the minimum amount of child support was $80.00 per month, or a whopping $18.60 per week (remember to use 4.3 to convert a monthly figure to a weekly number). The new 2017 guidelines increase slightly the minimum presumptive order to $25.00 per week. Remember you child support recipients, don’t spend this all at one place!
2. Parenting Time
The updated guidelines dispense with an addition made in the 2013 guidelines that addressed situations where one parent had parenting time that was more than one-third, but less than fifty percent of the time. There was a general consensus among most practitioners that this carve out, although well-intentioned, caused more problems than solutions by encouraging some parents to try and jockey the parenting schedule not because it worked best for the children, but to reduce child support. There were no changes made to the mechanics of determining child support when parents are sharing parenting time equally.
Additionally, and as noted in the TF report, the court may make deviations from the child support guidelines when appropriate and in consideration of the unique circumstances of the parties. Deviations, although necessary, do remove much of the certainty when parents are trying to decipher the guidelines, which can be challenging for those not working with an experienced divorce or family mediator or lawyer.
3. Child Care Costs
This is an area of substantial change in the 2017 Massachusetts child support guidelines and addresses what many perceived as a concern regarding the high cost of child care that was not addressed equitably in the previous 2013 version.
Now, there is a two-step calculation included. First, a parent paying child care expenses deducts the out of pocket costs from his or her gross income. Next, the parents share the total child care costs for both parents in proportion to their income available for support. This combined adjustment for child care and health care costs is capped at 15% of the child support order. The purpose of this 15% cap is to avoid an excessive offset that could “overwhelm the basic order” as noted in the TF report.
4. Child Support for Adult Children – Ages 18-23
Of course, we could have a lengthy discussion of why “adult children” are even receiving child support, or even what is this elusive “adult-child” creature, but that is for another day. As it relates to child support, non-emancipated sort-of adults are part of the child support mix. This is not the case in many other states. By statute, the Court has the discretion to order child support for people over 18, and they frequently do.
The new guidelines formula reduces the amount of support for children 18 or older as set forth in Table B of the new worksheet. If an 18-year-old is still in high school, then this reduction does not apply. The “age factor” for those between 18 up to age 23 depending on the circumstances of the child, amounts to a 25% reduction. The perceived weight of this offset will be lessened if there are other children under the age of 18 included in the calculations.
Again, the TF report points out that other deviations by the Court may be appropriate. One important factor that relates to this issue is the high cost of college – stay tuned for more on that below.
5. Contribution to Post-secondary Educational Expenses
This is another area where we have some new, if not overdue, content in the guidelines about how college costs factor into child support. For a little background, in Massachusetts, parents can be ordered by the Court to pay towards a child’s undergraduate education, until such child is 23, for those students on the relaxed 5 or 6 year plan for undergraduate studies.
This new sections specifically deals with college expenses, but keep in mind that parents can also be ordered to contribute to vocational training programs. Unless you possibly live underground, you know that college costs are high and continue to climb. Even our state schools are accompanied by impressive bills for tuition, fees, room, and meal plans. Some private schools are in excess of $70k per year.
Results from the Court relating to college contributions tend to vary considerably from case to case. As usual, parents are encouraged to find common ground and try to reach their own agreement, such as through the mediation process. The new guidelines state that the Court shall consider factors such as the cost of the education, the child’s aptitudes, living situation, available resources to the parents and the child, and the availability of financial aid.
Our new guidelines include this language:
“No parent shall be ordered to pay an amount in excess of fifty percent of the undergraduate, in-state resident costs of the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, unless the Court enters written findings that a parent has the ability to pay a higher amount.”
There are additional details about what costs are included (basically everything) and it is noted that this section applies to all orders requiring parental contribution to post-secondary expenses, regardless of where the child attends college.
What is interesting here is will be how the Courts interpret this clause; meaning will judges make frequent deviations and order parents to pay more than UMASS level expenses, or will the courts tend to give a significant amount of weight to this cap. I hope it is the latter in most instances.
6. Health Care Coverage
Medical insurance and health care costs are other economic realities that consume more of many people’s budgets. Not unlike the new approach to child care costs, this part of the guidelines has been re-worked in a similar fashion.
Each parent may deduct from his or her gross income the reasonable cost of individual or family health care coverage actually paid by that parent. If there is any additional costs to insure a person not covered by the child support order, and the Court determines that such additional cost would unreasonably impact the amount of child support, then some or all of such additional cost shall not be deducted.
There is then the two-step calculation, again as in the child care costs. First, the parent paying the health care deducts the out of pocket costs from his or her gross income; and secondly, the parents share the total health care costs for both parents in proportion to their income available for determining support.
The COMBINED adjustment for child care AND health care is capped at fifteen percent.
Expenses related to dental and visions insurance is included in the worksheet as part of the above calculations.
7. Language Regarding Existing Support Obligations and Modifications
The new guidelines provide more details about the modification of current child support orders, and reference the situation where an existing order deviated from the past guidelines. In this circumstance, the Court shall apply the existing deviation to the modification, if the facts that give rise to deviation still exist, the deviation is in the best interest of the child, and the guidelines child support amount would be unjust or inappropriate under the circumstances.
Income Issues and Child Support
When digesting the 2017 Child Support Guidelines, it is important to keep the issue of the parent’s income in mind. Definitions of income, although not new to the 2017 version, were reviewed and the TF considered recent activities that produce income for some parents, such as driving for Lyft or Uber, or renting a room or residence for short-term periods through various websites. The TF noted that they felt the existing definition and sources of income covered such activities.
The TF did address issues related to self-employment and business income. A new section on Imputed Income was created, noting that income may be imputed when there are actual resources available to a parent that are not reported for tax purposes.
Attribution of income was also clarified, with revisions made to highlight the differences between attributed income and imputed income. Attributed income is when the Court finds that a parent is capable of earning more money than is currently being earned, usually due to unemployment when work is available, or underemployment. The court will then assign an additional amount of income that will be used when determining child support.
Well, hang on to your hats, as there will likely be some interesting issues related to the new child support guidelines surfacing as we start to work with them on various cases. Child support is more nuanced than just filling out the guidelines. If you have a child support issue, including modifying your child support, we suggest you consider a more cooperative approach such as mediation. Legal fees for contested modifications can rise quickly.
Here are some links that relate to the 2017 MA Child Support Guidelines:
Massachusetts child support lawyer and mediator in Norfolk, MA