Common Misconceptions About Massachusetts Child Support

Unfortunately, people can sometimes assume that a friend or family member’s experience with child support reflects what the law actually states. As is often the case, this is a false presumption. There are actually many misconceptions about how child support currently works in Massachusetts. Here are a few of the more common ones:

1. My child support payments will decrease dramatically once my oldest child is emancipated.

If someone has two children, s/he naturally expects that the payment will be cut in half after one child leaves the nest. But the system does not work this way. Fixed costs such as mortgage and utilities remain the same regardless of the number of children still living at home, so the child support payment does not usually change much, other than perhaps a minor adjustment. In fact, if the payor’s income has increased since the court order was set, or the payee’s has declined, his or her child support payment may actually go up.

2. My child is now in college. Since I am now paying for his or her tuition, room and board, I shouldn’t have to continue paying child support on top of that. At the very least, child support should be suspended for eight months out of the year.

This argument does not work in “real life”. Fixed expenses (mortgage, utilities, etc.) remain the same at home for the other parent regardless of the additional education costs. If the child lives with the custodial parent for four months out of the year, you are still required to help that parent cover the basic needs of providing a home for your child over the course of the full year. You would not expect your mortgage lender to let you suspend payments while you took a vacation, would you? So it makes sense that the mortgage payment does not go down just because a child is away at college.

3. Child support payments will cover all the expenses involved with raising a child.

Unfortunately, far too often this is simply not the case in today’s world. The child support order is based on both need and the ability to pay. When one household splits into two separate households, expenses generally double. Since there is only so much money to go around, extra funds are typically scarce. The only ways to increase one’s ability to pay are to earn more money or reduce expenses. There is very little a judge can do to force one party to pay more if that party simply doesn’t have the means to do so.

4. Child support will cover extracurricular activities.

Though it is not law, in practice this is not often the case, since such expenses are not predictable or consistent. Usually extra expenses, such as music lessons, sports, driver’s ed, school trips, or college prep, are handled separately. They can be shared equally, or each parent can pay a certain percentage – but they are usually outside of the legal child support guidelines that cover a child’s “basic needs”.

5. If I negotiate with the other parent to come up with an informal change in our child support agreement based on a change in circumstances, the courts will enforce it.

Quite the opposite is actually true. Unless you get your change formally approved by a judge, it is not legally binding and cannot be enforced. If the other party happens to change his or her mind after agreeing informally with you to modify an existing agreement, he or she can bring you before a judge and charge you with contempt. Fortunately, recent changes in Court rules allow for a less burdensome informal process that allows you to fill out and submit a form to a judge for approval (without you having to be physically present) in the case of changed circumstances.

6. I was never married to the other parent and did not plan to have a child; therefore, I should not be expected to pay child support.

Child support is obligatory whenever there is a child and the parents of that child are living apart, whether through legal separation, divorce, or the termination of an unmarried relationship.

7. Alimony and child support are totally separate from each other.

That depends on what you mean. While alimony and child support are calculated separately from each other, it is not true that one does not affect the other. Massachusetts guidelines stipulate that alimony is calculated only on income amounts that are over and above the income used to calculate child support.

The formula differs depending on the amount of gross household income. If a combined family income is $250,000 or less, child support guidelines are applied first to determine the payment amount.  Income used in that calculation can not then be used to calculate alimony, so there would likely not be additional alimony. If, on the other hand, the combined family income is $400,000, child support guidelines are applied to the first $250,000; alimony guidelines can then be applied to the remaining $150,000.

To make matters slightly more confusing, there are also other possibilities in certain cases. A judge may apply child support guidelines to the full amount of household income just to see how it plays out. Additionally, a judge sometimes applies the alimony formula first, due to the different tax treatments of alimony and child support. Since alimony is considered income to the payee and a deduction for the payor while child support is not, a judge may want to see the alimony included in the payee’s gross income before determining the child support figure.

(Those who drafted the current child support legislation did not intend for the courts to interpret the law in this way, but some judges have set their own standard. It would take someone appealing a ruling in an appellate court to create a case study before the law’s interpretation would become more standardized.)

In my next post, we will look at how using mediation or Collaborative Practice rather than going through the courts can allow for creative negotiating when determining child support payments.