Child support is often among the most contentious issues in a child custody matter. Whether you’re planning on paying or receiving child support, chances are you have more than a few questions. In this episode, your host and guide, Attorney Leigh Sellers, provides you with the tips you need if your case involves child support.
Key insights from the episode:
The insights and views presented in “Welcome to Splitsville” are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning in to this podcast constitute an attorney-client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey through divorce, contact Leigh Sellers and her team at http://www.TouchstoneFamilyLaw.com
Hello there. Going through a divorce? Considering one? Sorry to hear that, but here you are. Welcome to Splitsville. You’ll find Splitsville to be a pretty unique place. A new world really, with its own rules, its own expectations and in many ways, its own language. But don’t worry, you have a knowledgeable guide along the way, a family law attorney with three decades of experience under her belt.
And now, here she is. Your host and guide, Leigh Sellers.
Hi everyone, and thanks for tuning into another episode of Welcome to Splitsville. I’m your host and guide, Leigh Sellers, founder of Touchstone Family Law. And, in this episode, I’ll be answering another question that many newcomers to Splitsville have, “What Do I Need to Know About Child Support?” So let’s dive in.
Often when people are in my office and they have children, the amount of child support that they might be paying or the amount of child support that they can depend on receiving is very much at the forefront of the conversation and of their mind. Most people are very concerned about how the money is going to be divided and their obligations are going to be changed when they go from sharing an income or two incomes to running different households. That’s something we talk about in almost every initial consultation with clients with children.
In North and South Carolina both, there are child support guidelines. It is a state calculation. It is a formula. It’s mandated by the federal government that every state have one, but it does vary from state to state. In South and North Carolina, they have the child support guidelines, the same as every other state in the country, but it is going to be unique to that particular state. The main things to remember are the central inputs. The calculators in both states look at what your average gross income is going to be, what both parents have earned on an average as gross monthly income. They’re going to look at how much work-related child support is on average throughout the year. They’re going to look at what the insurance cost, health, medical, vision, dental, whatever insurance you carry on your children, how much the cost of that insurance is just for the children, not for the entire family. They’re also going to look at how many overnights the children spend with each parent because obviously you’re going to be caring for the children when they’re in your house. Seeing where the children are over the course of the year is important for the calculation as well.
When you have all of those numbers, you input them into the formula, which is called the Child Support Guideline Calculator. It will tell you, according to that calculator, how much child support one parent owes the other. That seems simple. There are a few exceptions. If you earn too much money or you earn too little money for the calculator to work, then there’s another way to look into it. If you have a child that’s receiving Social Security insurance, there’s also some special rules about that. If you fall under any of those circumstances, the guidelines are not going to be as applicable to you. That would be another conversation. Let’s assume that that’s not your problem. The guidelines are going to be the amount of child support that is ordered in 95% of the cases.
Now there is a small amount of law that provides for a deviation from the guidelines. This is where there’s something wrong with the guidelines, where it doesn’t actually work properly to meet the children’s needs within the means and ability of the parents. That’s sometimes just an anomaly with the support calculator because one of the other things you have to consider is how many children you have. That’s also maxed on each of them. There are people who have more children than the guidelines provide for, and so that’s another problem. There are times when you put in the numbers and the formula just kicks out a number, and it actually isn’t reasonable. It’s either way too high or way too low. The court is allowed to make an independent inquiry in those situations. Doesn’t happen much, but it is something that we consider if we run the calculator and we could just look the numbers and know there’s something terribly wrong. It’s just a place in the algorithm that failed, and we can deal with that. Those are off-guideline cases is what we call them.
When we’re talking about income, lot of people will say things like, “Well, my bonus isn’t guaranteed,” or, “I get overtime, but it’s not guaranteed.” The problem is that the child support guidelines in both states are very clear that the court is going to look at your income from all sources. It is all of your income, interest, dividends, if you have regular gifts from a parent or a family member, if you’re lucky enough that you have somebody whose estate plan is giving you regular contributions annually. Everything, whether it’s guaranteed or not, is considered. They’re going to look at what you’re earning now, and they’re going to look at your historical earnings, and they’re going to basically average it. They will assume that you’re going to continue to earn as you have been earning.
The reason is because if there is a significant change in earnings or costs for health insurance or childcare, if the change is significant enough to make a 15% change in the amount of child support that would be awarded, then either party can come back and ask for a recalculation. There’s already a built-in mechanism for taking care of the fact that if you don’t get a bonus anymore or if your overtime suddenly disappears, they can correct it. They really don’t operate from a place of it might disappear. They basically are saying, “Well, if it does disappear, come back and we’ll fix it.” That’s nerveracking, I know, because you are worried about cashflow. If you aren’t actually earning the money, then it makes it very difficult to pay out what somebody has told you to pay out while you’re waiting to go back and get a modification. But that’s just the way that the law looks at it.
The reason is because they are really just trying to take care of the children and make sure that the division of the parents doesn’t negatively impact the children in one home or the other, that they still can be provided for regardless of whose care they’re in. They are going to be looking to make sure that these children have basic coverage for their needs in both homes. That’s really the purpose of child support, it is to make sure that that happens.
Child support covers the basic needs of children. I’ll often have people that will come in and say, “I know that he or she is not spending that on the children,” or they’ll as me are they going to get receipts, or how does that work that they get proof that the money that they’re paying is spent on the children. The answer to that is that you’re not going to get a breakdown. You’re not going to get an accounting. The reason is because there are some costs associated with taking care of your child that simply can’t be divided out from the combined family cost. Child support is supposed to cover shelter for your child. That means that whatever apartment or house they’re living in, whatever utilities that are being used are in part for the child. Yes, the parent is living there as well, but there’s some portion of that that is directly related to the children.
You think about it, you have to get a place that accommodates extra people, so you have more bedrooms if you have children. You have higher utility bills when you’re running the shower more, or have the lights on differently, or have a bigger refrigerator. All of those combined expenses are considered to be in part for the children, as well as the insurance on the automobile that safely transports them to appointments, or the gasoline that goes in the automobile that takes them to soccer practice, or to school, or to the doctor. The food that’s being purchased at the grocery store isn’t broken down per person like a cafeteria tray. You can’t really provide the receipt that proves to someone else that you’ve spent money on those places for the children. That’s why it’s not required. It just isn’t reasonable or feasible. There’s not going to be an accounting. If you know what you spend on your family when you’re in the house, then you know children tend to increase your expenses. I don’t think that any amount of money that is being awarded one side to the other is overwhelmingly larger than what those children’s needs have been when you were in the house if you really sit back and think about it.
You’re not going to have a situation where you can go buy diapers instead of giving somebody the cash or you can just drop off groceries or clothing. I know that is a common theme because most people are in a place of distrust when they separate or divorce, or are in a custody fight or a child support fight. The lack of trust that the other person is going to do right by you is high, and I understand that. Unfortunately, the court system is more focused on the child getting what they need and making sure they get it in a normal manner, and that the other parent not have to jump through hoops in order to meet those needs, to provide receipts, or to beg, or to sit there and wait for somebody to go bring them something that they could more quickly run out and get themselves if they need to get medicine or diapers for their children. It’s just not allowed. It’s going to be a cash payment from one parent to the other. The states feel confident in the guidelines they’ve calculated, and the judges are under a mandate to award money as the calculator provides, so that’s going to happen.
One thing that people ask is how long is it going to last. It is a little different in both North and South Carolina, so I won’t get into the specifics. Where some states do run child support much later, in North and South Carolina, it is not going to run into college age children. There is no requirement in either state to provide for your children if they continue their education beyond high school and go into college. Some states do run much longer, but this one doesn’t. You’re not going to find that there is any mandate that you provide for college.
One thing to think about when we’re talking about what it does cover, people would be surprised to know what it doesn’t cover. Since child support is guaranteed to just help underwrite the regular everyday needs for children, there’s a lot of things it doesn’t cover that we need to help parents come up with a formula or a method to continue to share going forward. It doesn’t cover extracurricular activities. It doesn’t cover music lessons or travel sports teams. It doesn’t cover extraordinary school supplies or field trips. Child support may give you enough money to pay for a $5 field trip to Discovery Place or a farm to pick strawberries, but if it is a bigger trip to the state capitols or a historic site, those $200 and $300 ones are not covered, nor will you find that any tutoring or just extras are really covered by child support guidelines.
As your children get older, they get more and more expensive. There’s automobile insurance to provide for new drivers if you choose to let your child have a driver’s license. There’s prom photos. There’s SAT applications. There’s college applications. There’s senior pictures. There’s yearbooks. There’s activity fees to participate in a lot of even public school sports. There’s rental for band instruments. The expenses go up tremendously as the children get older, and unfortunately the guidelines are not really calculating that into the formula because it’s not a necessity. I think in today’s society, it is something that we parents want to provide for our children. It definitely covers a lot of things that would help our children excel and reach the goals that we have for them and they have for themselves. We still like to make sure that parents come up with a vehicle about how are they going to deal with that when it happens.
Orthodontia is a huge one. Various people’s insurance covers some sort of it, but there’s usually a lot of additional uncovered costs. The child support guidelines only provide for up to about $250 a year. Medical, it’s assumed that there will be some copays, that there will be some medicines provides. For anything over and above that, the parties are expected to split it pro rata, pro rata to their incomes. We often take that formula and carry it through these other issues like agreed upon activities or sports, agreed upon enrichment activities. A lot of parents will agree to be bound by that pro rata rule, but it’s actually not in the state guidelines. That’s something you want to think about, how you want to save for it. We’ll often have people make agreements to contribute to a 529 account since you can’t require people to pay for college after the children are older. A lot of parents, to make sure that they still continue to plan and that both parents prepare that child to be able to have some funds available for secondary education, will actually agree to some sort of college fund.
There’s a lot of things you can do by agreement, but the court is bound only to what the statutes require, and that is the child support guidelines. There’s a lot of room for flexibility for parents to make economic decisions together and come up with their own plan and not rely simply on what the guidelines say and what the court might be empowered to do. We really encourage people of all income levels to really think through what’s the best way to meet their child’s needs in a financial sense when they’re splitting up. We have a lot of tools and resources, financial planners, budget specialists, even sometimes resources on where you might be able to find less expensive health insurance options or scholarships for various things. That’s something that we will try to holistically approach and help you as you’re going through this process.
But it is serious, and there are many judges that will remind you that it is the one bill, the one expense that if you don’t pay, you’ll go to jail for. It is true, they do not look at child support as something you pay after you’ve paid everything else. When I have someone with a child support obligation come in and say, “Well, I just don’t have enough money. After I pay all my bills, I don’t have enough money to pay that,” the problem is that what the judges think is, “No, you pay your child support first, and then we see what money you’ve got left to pay the rest of your bills with.” That’s something that’s a little hard for people to adjust to, especially if money is tight, but that child support obligation will be enforced by both states’ courts very seriously. It’s important that you calculate it properly, and that you’re educated, and that you understand that you’re going to have this obligation and you want to be paying properly.
A lot of people will come in who have already been separated for a good many of months, and they haven’t been making any contribution. One thing I would caution everyone to remember is that you want to understand what your economic responsibilities are to your children before you separate or before you start living apart from their parent. If you’re a parent of a child and you weren’t in a marriage relationship with the other parent, then you still have an obligation that begins as soon as that child takes their first breath. Don’t let yourself get behind. Make sure that you have a plan very early on because the court system is allowed to go backwards and make sure that there is some repayment if you did not pay a sufficient amount of child support. It’s just like any other penalty. Once you get behind and it’s a large debt, it can be very overwhelming to whittle that down with your ongoing. I really do ask people not to dodge that.
There are child support enforcement agencies in both states, and some people will apply to those. If you get a notice from the Child support enforcement officers asking you to come down and meet with them and work with them to work out a child support amount voluntarily, that’s a great plan, but you should speak to an attorney first before you go meet with them because you want to know all of the answers to your questions before you go in there to meet with them because they’re not really going to advocate too strongly. They’re just trying to do what’s best for the child. They are not lawyers. When you’re working with these child support enforcement officers, they are trained with the child support guidelines, and they do know and have information on how to calculate it. But they are not lawyers, and they aren’t going to pretend they are or try to raise legal issues for either one of you. It would be best to make sure that you know what is going to be discussed and know what your rights and obligations are before you go talk to them because it can be very useful to go ahead and enter into those agreements so that you don’t have to go to court.
It would be a voluntary agreement that they would then turn into a court order, but does mean you don’t have to take off and go to court and sit in the courtroom waiting for a judge to call your case. If you need to be on the job, then that’s an important consideration. You definitely don’t want to ignore those letters. Just make sure you go ahead and request a consultation so that you know what you’re walking into. A lot of people will agree to something thinking that it’s really easy to change. There are rules around changing those numbers. You want to make sure that you get it right the first time. Don’t move too quickly, but make sure that you’re very prepared.
When you come to a consultation with an attorney, make sure that you have pay stubs with you, or tax returns, and things that will help an attorney give you an estimate with those child support calculators. They’re not actually state secrets. The child support calculators and guidelines are on a website open to the public, and they have a calculator online which will allow you to put the numbers in yourself and get an idea or an estimate of what your child support obligation if you are on the guidelines would be. It’s not something that is super-secret, but making sure that your inputting the right data is completely going to affect whether you get the right answer. You still want to make sure you speak with someone, that there’s a lot of research that you can do before you even get into an attorney’s office. We encourage you to do that. It’s an important issue for families, and it’s an important issue for the parents. It’s something that everybody in my office spends a lot of time helping people with, and we can get an answer for you.
So, there you have it, another neighborhood of Splitsville explored. There’s still so much to learn here, so I hope you’ll tune into the next episode. While Splitsville is not a fun place to be, thankfully it is full of helpful people, valuable resources and sound advice, if you know where to look. See you next time.
The insights and presented in Welcome to Splitsville are for general information purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. Nor does tuning into this podcast constitute an attorney/client relationship of any kind. If you’re ready for compassionate and reliable legal guidance on your journey, contact Leigh Sellers and her team at touchstonefamilylaw.com.