The long-anticipated changes to the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines have been published and will take effect on September 15, 2017.
By law, these state Guidelines must be updated every four years by a Task Force appointed by the Chief Justice of the Trial Court. They were last updated in 2013, but significant changes made then to the child support formula and to parenting time language left many confused and uncertain about what to expect when appearing before a Judge. As a result, many of the Guideline changes seen in 2017 address these issues.
Below are the major Guideline changes from 2017, along with a brief explanation of each modification. It will take a while for the Courts to sort out application of these changes. Mediation or Collaborative Practice processes help clients determine optimal family support amounts.
Minimum and Maximum Child Support Amounts
Since 2002, the minimum amount of child support in Massachusetts has been $18.46 per week, or roughly $80 per month. The Task Force recommended that the minimum support order be increased instead to $25 per week, with the presumptive minimum support order applying to combined income of up to $115 per week. While the change doesn’t reflect a significant difference financially, it acknowledges and makes accommodation for rising costs of inflation.
Parenting Time Clarification
The controversy over shared parenting time dates back to the 2009 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, when language was added to specifically define how child support should be calculated differently by the Court when parents shared parenting time equally (or approximately equally). Since shared parenting arrangements imply shared parental costs, the 2009 Guidelines stipulated that the presumptive support amount should be determined “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.”
The problem was that this definition did not provide a formula for cases other than when parenting time was equal or one third. In an attempt to provide clarification, the 2013 Guidelines allowed the Court to consider a “deviation upwards” when the payor had the children less than one third of the time, and also added an “averaging calculation” for instances when parenting time was between 33 – 50%. These changes unfortunately did not do much to reduce vagueness, and actually increased litigation surrounding fractional parenting time. They also did little to create consistency in child support orders, and shifted the focus of determining a parenting plan from being what is in the best interest of the children to instead fighting over how to reduce a child support order.
Recognizing the controversial nature of this provision, the 2017 Task Force recommended removing the parenting time/child support calculation that had been inserted into the 2013 Guidelines. They deleted the in-between category (33-50% parenting time), and added a principle of discretion to guide Judges in determining calculations for certain families, saying “deviations should be used when appropriate to tailor a child support order to the unique circumstances of a particular family.”
Increasing a Judge’s freedom of discretion in particular cases means parties now have even less of an idea about what might happen when they go before the Court. This presents a strong argument in favor of using Mediation or Collaborative Practice (rather than litigation) to self-determine the outcome.
New Child Support Formula for Children between Ages 18-23
Child support orders can apply to children age 18 and older (up through age 23), though they are not presumptive like they are for children under age 18. In the past, child support for those age 18 and older has often been continued at the same amount it was when the child was a minor. The 2017 Task Force recommended instead that the amount of child support for children age 18 or older be reduced by 25% at the base amount. Emancipation factors still apply, and the Court still has discretion to deviate when appropriate. When there are multiple children in a family, only the portion of child support related to the adult child should be affected by this new formula. The change in child support orders to reflect the 25% reduction does not have to be made through a Court; it can be easily applied through Mediation.
College Contribution Cap
In the past, college expenses have been lumped together with other extra costs (such as athletics or private school education) and left to a Judge’s discretion whether to include them in child support orders for individual families. The 2017 Task Force recommended adding a new Guideline section dealing specifically with post-secondary educational expenses, and capping parental court-ordered contributions at 50% of the undergraduate, in-state resident costs of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Contribution to these expenses is still not presumptive, and the suggested limitation is not mandatory but will likely apply in most cases.
If the combined amounts of child support and college education contributions is too much, a Judge has the ability to reduce the child support. The Court can also order a parent to contribute more than 50% if s/he has the financial ability to do so.
Health Care Coverage and Child Care under Child Support Orders
Both health care and child care costs can have a significant impact on a family’s bottom line, especially if health care coverage is not available to the payor at a reasonable cost. The 2017 Guidelines added a new formula that gives a proportional adjustment to the child support order after the parent who is paying for health care coverage deducts the amount from his or her gross income. This adjustment reflects a sharing of both health care and child care costs, and includes a 15% cap to prevent these expenses from affecting the support order too much. This means that a dollar-for-dollar credit will not be available for the payor, as it could unfairly skew a child support order.
It is wise to run expenses with the formula multiple ways on the child support order worksheet to determine the possible variations of net difference (though the recent update will help to minimize the extreme range that could have occurred under the 2013 Guidelines).
Guidelines Format Change
A significant change in format has been adopted this year to help bring greater clarification to those who may need guidance in understanding or implementing the Child Support Guidelines. In the past, the Guidelines included a few footnotes but were otherwise free of commentary; instead, lengthy explanations were included in a separate report. Since the Guidelines are used by all types of people (from parties to attorneys to judges), the new format now includes sections of text followed by informative commentary that provides direction as to how the Guidelines should be interpreted and applied.
Modification Language Clarification
It is important for parties to have the ability to go to Court to modify an original support order, but within reason – the orders should not be continually or immediately modified after being agreed to. To clarify this point, the 2017 Guidelines stipulate that any inconsistency with an order can indeed result in a new order if a Judge so rules, but that cases in which the original order was a deviation will not necessarily change due to an inherently obvious inconsistency.
Income that Should Be Included or Excluded
Clarification as to which income should be counted for the child support calculation (for both the payor and recipient) was added to the 2017 Guidelines. Non-taxable self-employment income, undocumented income (such as free rent), and attributable income due to unemployment or underemployment must be included. Overtime income may be excluded.
No Change in Maximum Income Amount
The Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines only apply up to $250,000 of combined household income. No further clarification was added in 2017 as to how to deal with income above that amount, except for a note that this is a discretionary matter.
If you would like more information on the recent Guidelines changes, visit these links: