A common issue between unmarried, divorcing or separated parents is the cost of child support. No matter what the calculation method, many parents find themselves in a situation where they must pay more than they think they can afford for child support to the other parent.
Nancy Richardson, a collaborative family law attorney with Stewart, Melvin & Frost, specializes in divorces and related disputes affecting families through either litigation or a “collaborative” approach. Nancy will share insight with us about recent changes to child support calculation in the state of Georgia and what factors are considered in calculating recurring child support payments.
Question: In Georgia, has the calculation of child support changed in recent years?
Nancy: Until 2007, support was generally based on a percentage of the non-custodial parent’s income. In 2007, Georgia’s laws or guidelines for determining child support changed. Now, as in many other states, child support is based on an “Income Shares Model,” where the amount of support is based on the gross incomes of both parents and the expenses paid by either parent for the child’s health insurance and child care must be factored in.
The reason for switching to the new approach is to make it more equal, to reflect that both parents have the obligation of child support, not just the non-custodial parent. The new calculation method is intended to take into account all aspects of raising a child, from expenses for basic needs to time spent with the child.
The new guidelines include TABLES showing, as a starting point, the “basic child support obligation” — which is supposed to be what an intact family with 2 parents’ combined monthly income of $X would spend each month to raise the number of children they have. Each parent’s support obligation depends on what percentage of the combined total each earns or is capable of earning.
Also, where children are placed in a third-party’s custody, both parents may be obligated to pay child support to that third party custodian or guardian where appropriate.
Question: How do the courts standardize something like child support calculations?
Nancy: In Georgia, we use a “Child Support Worksheet” which is basically an Excel spreadsheet where you enter all of the income and certain expenses of each parent. If you request any deviations, you must explain how deviation is in the child’s best interest. This excel worksheet performs calculations, and comes up with the total amount of support that will have to be paid each month, adjusted to fit the paying parent’s pay schedule, whether monthly, bi-weekly or weekly, as appropriate.
There are pen-and-paper versions of the worksheet too, if the person doesn’t have a computer. It becomes sort of like doing an income tax return.
Question: Different families face different situations. Is there some part of the worksheet you mentioned that allows for exceptions or special circumstances?
Nancy: Yes. Parents can be allowed “deviations” on the worksheet, which account for special circumstances. Every case is decided individually, but within statutory guidelines.
One of the deviations sometimes allowed is the “Parenting Time Deviation,” which can be requested when the “non-custodial” parent has more than “standard” visitation / parenting time with the children. The amount of parenting time a parent has is only one factor a judge looks at when deciding whether to approve such a deviation. Another factor is the relative incomes of the parents.
Other possible grounds for deviation include the alimony, if any, being paid by the non-custodial parent to the other parent; certain tax benefits received by the custodial parent, life insurance premiums paid by the obligor parent when the children are named beneficiaries; significant visitation-related travel expenses and other special circumstances.
Even where parents may have agreed on child support, using deviations to arrive at the support amount to be paid, a judge must still examine what the guidelines call for and consider the explanation for any deviation before deciding whether it’s in the child’s best interest. If things look “out of kilter,” the judge could refuse to sign off on the parents’ agreement.
Question: What other information is considered when calculating child support?
Nancy: Several things besides income are taken into consideration when determining the amount of money a parent will have to pay each month for child support.
•A parent’s separate assets available for support if liquidated;
•The number & ages of children who need support
•Cost for child care necessary for the parent(s) to work
•Whether there are other children for whom a parent is paying child support under an earlier order
•Whether the parent has another child living with him or her whom that parent is obligated to support – i.e. NOT a step-child.
•Special education expenses, enrichment activities, and special medical needs of the child or another family member
•Finally, it might surprise people, but under the guidelines, in certain circumstances, it is possible that a custodial parent could be obligated to pay child support to a non-custodial parent with visitation rights — if that is what’s in the children’s best interest. So, just having primary custody does not necessarily mean a parent would not pay child support to the other parent. It may be rare, but it does happen.