Attorney Howard Iken discusses Florida child support laws
Overview of Child Support
When people think about divorces, one of the most common elements people think about is child support. This is understandable because, under Florida law, any divorcing couple that has at least one minor child in common must pay child support. Most divorcing couples in Florida know and understand this general principle; however, exactly how a court goes about calculating child support in Florida is less known. Some divorcing parents may feel upset to learn, for instance, that they are being ordered to pay more support for one child than a coworker or friend was ordered to pay for two or three children.
It might surprise some to learn that the calculation of a child support order is governed entirely by statute. Under the law, the judge actually has very little discretion in setting the amount of support; when the judge does deviate, he or she must make specific findings. Understanding the steps that go into the calculation of child support in any given case can help parents involved in a divorce case estimate the amount of support the court will order. This can take some of the confusion away from a divorce and help the parties budget better.
How Child Support is Calculated – An Overview
Many attorneys and individuals will tell you the calculation of child support is cut and dried. True, yet not quite true. There are many twists, turns, and strategic considerations in a support case. The basic method of determining support is to take each parent’s net income and compare them to the Guidelines Table contained in Florida chapter 61. One frequent misconception is that household expenses matter when calculating child support. In fact, the only thing that matters is your gross income – less a very short list of valid deductions. That list includes things such as taxes, personal health insurance, and other child support judgments.
The area where child support calculation gets tricky is the interaction with the number of overnights each parent has with their child. If either parent has the child (or children) more than 20% of the annual overnights, the child support calculation changes to an alternate formula. That alternate formula substantially reduces the total support. Also, each additional overnight over the initial 20% reduces child support by a calculated amount. That one fact cases a great deal of fighting between parents over the division of overnights with the children.
Florida Child Support Guidelines
While there are several methods by which child support obligations can be calculated, Florida utilizes the “income shares” model. This model assumes that, if the parents remained married, they would use their combined income to raise their children. Therefore, this model takes into account the income of both parents in calculating the obligation amount. That total support amount is then divided between the divorcing parents, so that each parent is responsible for a portion of the total support obligation.
The Florida Child Support Guidelines are found at Florida Statute 61.30. This statute sets forth the manner in which child support obligation amounts are to be calculated. If a court follows the guidelines, the child support obligation it arrives at is considered a presumptive amount. This means that courts assume that a child support obligation arrived at through following the guidelines is an appropriate child support obligation amount, and any party that disagrees must present specific facts showing that the obligation amount is not appropriate.
The Guidelines allow a judge to deviate from the presumed amount up to 5% in either direction. For example, suppose that two parents are divorcing and the Guidelines provide for a presumptive child support obligation amount of $500.00. Under the Guidelines, the court can enter an obligation amount as low as $475.00 and as high as $525.00. If the court wants to enter an order for an amount that is greater than a 5% difference from the presumptive amount, it must make written findings that set forth why the court believes the presumptive amount is not appropriate. In the example above, if the court wanted to enter an obligation in the amount of $600.00, it would need to make specific written findings that detail why the court felt $600.00 was an appropriate obligation and why $500.00 (the presumptive amount) was not appropriate.
Calculation of Gross Income of the Parties
The calculation of a child support obligation amount begins with each party completing financial affidavits concerning their individual incomes. These affidavits are then exchanged by the parties, so that each parent knows what the other parent is claiming as income. When a party claims annual income less than $50,000.00, Form 902(b) is used to complete the financial affidavit. If a party claims annual income of $50,000.00 or more, then that party completes Form 902(c).
Both forms contain instructions telling each party how to complete the form, including what sort of income to include and what deductions may be claimed. For instance, the forms tell the parties to calculate their “gross” or “pre-tax” income by adding together that party’s:
· Salary and wages;
· Overtime wages;
· Bonuses, commissions, allowances, tips;
· Business income, which includes money received from self-employment, a partnership, a corporation, or independent contracts;
· Disability benefits;
· Workers’ compensation benefits and settlements;
· Reemployment assistance;
· Unemployment benefits;
· Social Security benefits;
· Payments from a pension, retirement plan, or annuity;
- Spousal support payments received;
· Interest and dividends;
· Rental income;
· Income from royalties, trusts, or estates; and
· Gains derived from dealings with property.
This rather expansive definition of “income” is meant to capture most sources of income.
Some less-than-honest parents may think they can lower or eliminate their child support obligation altogether by purposely either lowering their income (taking a pay cut, for instance) or by voluntarily quitting their job. The Guidelines anticipated that some parents might try to do this, and so they allow the court to “impute” income to the underemployed or unemployed spouse. In doing so, the Guidelines instruct the court to treat the underemployed or unemployed spouse as if he or she had a full-time job and was earning a full-time wage. Before a court can do this, the court must find that the underemployment or unemployment is due to a voluntary choice of that parent. In other words, the underemployment or unemployment cannot be the result of:
· A layoff;
· A department- or company-wide reduction of hours; or
· Being terminated or let go (unless due to the deliberate, bad behavior of the parent).
In addition, the court can impute income if one parent refuses to fill out a financial affidavit. The Guidelines provide very specific instructions to the court regarding how to impute income to a party.
Calculation of Net Income of the Parties
Once the parties have calculated their gross income, the parties are instructed to deduct certain expenses from their income. The resulting figure (gross income minus permitted deductions) results in a figure known as net income. This net income figure is the figure that will be used to calculate the child support obligation amount. Therefore, the more deductions a parent can claim, the lower that parent’s child support obligation.
Parents are permitted to deduct the following expenses from their gross income:
· Amounts paid for federal, state, or local taxes;
· Federal insurance contributions or self-employment taxes;
· Mandatory union dues;
· Mandatory retirement contributions;
· Health insurance premiums for persons other than the children;
· Child support obligations for other children; and
· Alimony payments.
Using the Guidelines Worksheet
By now, each party has calculated his or her gross income and has taken away permissible deductions to arrive at a net income figure. The parents’ individual net income figures are combined. The court then consults the Guidelines to determine the obligation amount. In order to do this, the court consults the grid contained in the Guidelines. The court finds the cell that corresponds to the combined net income of the parents and the number of children.
For instance, suppose Ted and Amanda completed their affidavits and found they had a combined net income of $3,500.00. With two children, the Guidelines state that the presumptive child support obligation amount is $1,149.00. If the combined income of Ted and Amanda was only $2,000.00, the child support obligation would decrease to $686.00. However, suppose that Ted and Amanda have a combined net income of $7,000.00 but have only one child. In such a circumstance, the child support obligation would be $1,212.00.
The final step of the worksheet requires that the total child support obligation amount be divided between the parties according to their net incomes. To do this, the court will take the total net income of the parties and divide each individual parent’s net income by the total net income. The resulting percentage will then be multiplied by the total child support obligation. For instance, suppose that Ted had net income of $2,000.00 and Amanda had net income of $1,500.00. As noted above, the presumptive child support obligation is $1,149.00. To calculate Ted’s part of this obligation, the court would take Ted’s income of $2,000.00 and divide it by the total net income figure of $3,500.00. This yields a result of 0.571, or 57.1%. This is then multiplied by the total support obligation amount of $1,149.00. Ted’s portion of the obligation for which he is responsible is $656.57. A similar process would be used to determine Amanda’s precise obligation.
It is assumed that the parent with whom the child predominantly resides pays his or her share; thus, the other parent would pay the first parent that portion of the child support obligation that he or she owes. For example, suppose a simple situation in which the total child support obligation is $100.00, split evenly between Ted and Amanda. Suppose further that the child resides primarily with Amanda. Ted will have to pay Amanda $50.00 for child support, but it is assumed that Amanda pays her $50.00 obligation while the child is residing with her. In other words, Amanda would not have to pay Ted $50.00 in child support.
Dividing Other Expenses
Expenses such as tuition and educational expenses, health care deductibles, and child care expenses can be split between the parties in a similar manner as well. However, sometimes it makes sense for one party to be responsible for a certain expense. For example, suppose Ted’s employer offers health insurance, and the healthcare premium for Ted and his child would be considerably low. In such an instance, the parties can agree to split expenses in some other way. For instance, Ted may agree to cover the health insurance premiums for the child in exchange for Amanda paying the costs of day care.
But if the parties cannot agree as to the division or sharing of expenses, the court can divide these expenses between the parties using the same formula used to determine the share of the child support obligation for which each party is responsible. For instance, if the cost of a health care premium for the child is $100.00 per month, the court can assign $57.10 of this obligation to Ted and $42.90 to Amanda.
Modification of Child Support Orders
Once a child support order has been entered, that obligation continues until the order is modified or until it is terminated on account of the child turning eighteen years old or graduating high school. A modification – or change – of a child support order can be entered by the court if there has been a “substantial and ongoing change in circumstance.” The parent wanting to modify the existing order is responsible for setting forth facts showing that such a change in circumstance exists. Such a change in circumstance can be something such as a parent being laid off or forced to take a lower-paying job, a parent becoming disabled and unable to work, or another sort of change.
In order for a court to consider a modification of an existing child support award, the change must be either greater than 15% or $50 of the existing amount (whichever is more).
Tax Consequences of Child Support
A parent may find themselves ordered to pay both alimony and child support. Unlike periodic alimony payments, which are tax deductible for the obligor spouse and counted as income for the receiving spouse, child support payments are treated differently for tax purposes. Generally speaking, child support payments are not deductible for the paying spouse and are not counted as income for the receiving spouse.
At the Law Firm of Ayo and Iken – We Can Help
Although child support obligations are governed by statute, Florida Statute 61.30 is complex and contains a number of provisions meant to deal with specific circumstances. Our experienced attorneys can help a parent navigate Florida Statute 61.30 and provide a more accurate estimation of what that parent’s child support obligation will be. The attorney can also ensure the parent’s financial affidavit is completed correctly and that the other parent’s affidavit is likewise completed correctly. Finally, we can examine either parent’s financial situation for a substantial change in circumstance, and can ask the court to enter orders modifying the child support appropriately. While the calculation of child support is not as random or mysterious as some might think, correctly calculating a child support obligation amount is still a complex task.