Using Mediation or Collaborative Practice to Negotiate Child Support That Works for You

Once child support reaches the court, it becomes another instance of rolling the dice as far as the outcome is concerned. If parents want to retain more control of the process and have a say in the final outcome, they are well advised to look for alternate means.

While each state has set certain guidelines that must be applied when determining child support amounts, there is some flexibility (within certain limits) if the child support figure is determined through a negotiation process such as mediation or Collaborative Practice, as opposed to through a court order.

Here are two points to consider:

1)      Anyone can voluntarily pay more than the guidelines require. Nobody will complain about an overly generous offer. This situation might occur if the payor is motivated, for instance, by a desire to see his/her child get the very best or an acknowledgement that the child support will not provide for the standard of living the parent would like the child to have. The only caveat is that the payment amount has to be financially feasible for the payor. If someone wants to pay $300 a week in child support but only makes $320 a week, it just will not work.

2)      If one parent thinks he or she cannot pay what the guidelines require and offers a lesser amount, the other parent cannot accept that on the child’s behalf.  Child support is considered the child’s entitlement and the parent does not usually have a right to accept a lesser amount.  The legal standard which courts will uphold is whatever is in the best interest of the child.

Both points come into play when two parties are negotiating. Judges have little discretion on child support unless the parties agree.  Parents, however, can actually have discretion in applying child support guidelines if both parties negotiate wisely through mediation or Collaborative Practice.

While any deviations to the standard guidelines must be justified by the Court through “findings of fact”, a judge will generally accept these deviations if provided with suitable rationale. For example, both parties may agree that the payee will take less child support for a year while the payor pays down their credit card debt. A judge would likely agree to this if properly explained because paying down debt would benefit everyone.

As with alimony, child support can trigger strong emotions. Parents can become offended that the state has strict guidelines in place that require them to support their children when they would have done so on their own regardless. In such situations, it is helpful to have an objective mediator who is not swayed by emotion keep the necessary process moving along smoothly.

Mediators and professionals involved in Collaborative Practice can be creative as they work with both parties to negotiate a solution that is satisfactory for the family but also complies with state guidelines.

In cases where both parents get along and still work together well, one option might be to set up a joint account in which each one deposits an agreed upon amount every week to cover certain expenses. This can be a way to fund extracurricular activities for the child, medical expenses, college search costs, car insurance, or a clothing allowance. Ordinarily a judge does not have the option to impose this on his or her own, but will consider it if it is proposed by both parties and is in the child’s best interest.

If a child reaches college age and one parent tries to modify the child support order due to increased tuition or room/board expenses, a third-party negotiator can often work with both parties to reach an amicable agreement, whereas a judge’s options are limited.

In general, it usually works in a family’s best interest to keep child support issues out of the courts and in their own hands. This allows them to factor in their unique circumstances and keep control of the process as much as possible. Working with a professional mediator or a Collaborative Practice expert can produce creative, fair negotiations for all parties involved.