How Child Support Works
In Massachusetts – and most states, frankly – the default view of the court is that both parents have a duty to provide some manner of support towards the care and wellbeing of their child. Most typically, this is viewed through the practice of providing a financial support payment to the custodial parent that primarily cares for the child(ren). It should be noted that the custodial parent also shares that duty, but it is assumed that by having physical custody they are providing that duty through direct care (housing, purchasing, time investments, etc.).
Child support payments can be made in a couple of ways. The first of which is a direct payment from one parent to the other. Direct payments can be done by virtually any means – cash, check, Venmo, etc. – and support obligations are satisfied as long as payments are made on time and in whole. It is recommended that you use something with a paper trail to prove transactions are made. The second method is done through wage garnishment. If there is more risk of nonpayment, a request can be entered to the Department of Revenue which will result in an automatic withdrawal of the support amount (plus any back payment) from each check earned by the parent ordered to pay support. The Department of Revenue can enforce this wage garnishment against paychecks across the country.
Whatever support amount is determined (more on that in a second), the point of child support is to pay basic needs for your child. This includes housing, food, clothing, and medical costs. Sometimes it can feel like the money is just being used to the benefit of the other parent instead of its intended use, but money is fungible – one dollar provided offsets another dollar already possessed. Just because the other parent may be able to afford a nice phone or car that they otherwise may not be able to, that doesn’t mean that your support amount is not providing basic needs for your child. If there is a serious issue, there is an opportunity to explore a modification to the support amount or the custody arrangement as a whole.
As a final note, child support can also be ordered to cover the payment of extra-curricular activities like sports leagues, summer camps, and other events that may benefit the development and enjoyment of the child. Parents can be ordered to pay all or part of the costs based on their means to do so.
How Child Support Is Calculated
In Massachusetts, child support amounts are largely determined with the use of a Guidelines Worksheet. The worksheet will ask a whole bunch of questions about the number of children to be considered, income sources, costs already paid, and several other items for both parents. The worksheet then will produce a formula similar to what you might see on a tax worksheet, and will proportionally split support obligations based on who earns what and what kind of expenses are being paid out. This means it is possible for there to be a split of say, 60/40 in the amount of support each parent is obligated to.
Some specific points that will be considered are the gross income of each parent, any other child support obligations, presumed current costs of child care, health insurance, and how old the child(ren) are.
If a parent has no real income (less than $115 gross weekly income), their minimum support obligation would be set at $25 a month.
Variations in the Formula
When calculating a support amount, it is normal to present multiple worksheets based on different circumstances that may occur. One of the most common variations that can impact support amounts is when there isn’t an agreed-to custody and parenting schedule. It is normal to arrive at different amounts for any parent based on how much custody they could potentially get through a divorce. These variations usually come in considerations of rough approximations of time spent with the child, broken down into thirds.
Additionally, the court may deviate from the guidelines if they find there to be good cause to do so. It isn’t necessarily the norm, but it is not unheard of that one parent might try and manipulate their income levels by obfuscating their true compensation, voluntarily taking a job that has them underemployed, etc. If the judge believes this to be happening, they are given the discretion to change the child support amount with their own calculation.
Parents can also agree to pay different amounts in child support from the guidelines, but this typically is only allowed where revisions are greater than what the guidelines suggest. On very rare occasions, a lesser amount could be paid from what the guidelines suggest. In either case, the agreement of both parents is required and the court must approve that deviation.
Modifications to Child Support in Massachusetts
If, for whatever reason, you believe a child support order to be unfair, there are some options you can explore to make an adjustment.
If you are still in an active case and a support order has not been finalized, you can ask the judge to reconsider the amount as long as you can show good cause that they do so. In addition to showing good cause, you will likely also have to prove that the change is in the best interest of your child.
If an order has been issued, the only way to get a change in the support amount is for there to be a built-in trigger that modifies the amount owed (such as a child who has graduated high school but does not intend to go to college) or petition the court for a modification. A modification will likely only be considered if there is a change in circumstances that warrant a review of the order, such as a significant change in income earned by either parent, the birth of a new child, changes in health insurance, or other events that would materially impact the ability to pay the ordered amount. The judge will likely not entertain a request for modification that you just don’t like, especially if you file for the modification within a few years of the original order being issued.
In some cases, both parents can file a joint modification where they agree on a change in child support. Joint modifications that are viewed as reasonable by the court can potentially be done administratively without requiring a court appearance, as long as all supporting documents are thorough and provided with the initial filing.