By Karen Sparks
Whether the family law statutes in your jurisdiction state it explicitly or it is inferred from other mandates, the foundational principle for the financial protection of children in divorce is the “best interests of the child”.
There is no hard and fast definition of this phrase because it is not possible to craft one. The blueprint for every family is unique and so are the concerns, requirements, and the emotional, physical and psychological development of the children of every family.
In an attempt to establish a basic set of regulations, most jurisdictions have established child support guideline calculations that, in minimum, are designed to meet the basic needs of minor children. The difficulty with child support is that it is constantly changing as children mature and grow to keep up with their academic, emotional, medical, mental, and physical development. The earning capacity of parents and the existence of two households instead of one presents another layer of challenge.
So, let’s consider some of the ways to get prepared for this discussion.
Understanding what child support is NOT
The child support guideline calculations are not designed to maintain the status quo that existed prior to divorce. Educational, extracurricular and discretionary spending patterns must be re-evaluated during the divorce process.
A corollary to child support is the visitation schedule and agreement for the custodial parent (the parent the minor child(ren) lives with most of the time) and the noncustodial parent representing the time the children spend with each parent. If there are non-payment or inconsistent payment issues by the parent paying child support, visitation rights cannot be withheld as the statutes in most jurisdictions support the minor children’s access to both parents.
An additional note regarding visitation schedules is that some jurisdictions equate the child support guideline numbers to the percentage of time the minor children are spending with each parent. Thus, you will want to research this issue in conjunction with consulting with a family law professional such as attorneys and Certified Divorce Financial Analysts® in order to determine the appropriate statutory requirements.
Most statutes impose an obligation on BOTH parents to provide the necessary support for the minor children, not just the higher wage-earning parent.
Child support (unless there are extenuating circumstances) does not continue past the age of 18. Thus, costs for education beyond high school become a moral obligation of both parents and not a requirement that is legally enforceable.
The parent paying child support is not entitled to an accounting for how the funds are applied.
Know What Your Expenses Are
Take the time to create an expense table, list or spreadsheet that details all of the costs, recurring payments, summer payments, childcare payments, extracurricular activities, education support costs etc. for each minor child. Having a clear picture of these items helps to set the stage for re-thinking which processes are going to be scaled back or eliminated and which processes are going to move forward.
Organization, communication between parents, schedules, expense tracking and reimbursements, a portal for older children to upload messages etc. requires a streamlined, dependable approach. Consider products such as Our Family Wizard which provide a robust platform in one place to house and maintain key information including expenses. They have also updated their software with a product called ToneMeterTM which acts as a reminder to parents to monitor the effect of their communications.
Either one or both parents are required to contribute to these costs. A protocol between parents should be developed to address the issue of expenses for uninsured medical costs and procedures.
Income fluctuation and intentional underemployment
Determine whether the statutes in your jurisdiction allow for modifications of existing child support orders. Keep in mind that if you are aware that a modification needs to occur with respect to an existing child support order that you should take action on moving forward on the modification at your earliest convenience.
There may be statutory guidance in your jurisdiction for reimbursement of costs for the custodial and the non-custodial parent of transporting the minor children in compliance with the visitation schedule.
Legal mandates may require proof of necessity. Evidence of benefit to the child, need for ongoing services and the like may need to be compiled.
It will be necessary to work with an attorney, mediator or other trained family law professional and/or medical professional to work out how the care, costs of care, equipment, medications, transportation to and from school and/or medical services and the like are going to apportioned between the parents. This can be an emotionally charged discussion and therefore it is prudent to engage the appropriate professionals to help work through these requirements.
Nonpayment of child support
Investigate whether your jurisdiction or county has a child support services program to enforce and/or litigate the payment of current and/or past child support payments against the payor parent.
There are just a few of the considerations that occur in the negotiations regarding child support. Even though this can be a challenging discussion, remember to keep your children first and foremost in your analysis. The goal is to provide the best post-divorce financial support platform that is possible within the income and other expense parameters of the parents.
About the Author
Karen D. Sparks, CDFA®, J.D. is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® and is the principal and owner of Divorce Financial Strategists™ of Santa Clara, CA. She provides services locally and nationwide for divorce and separation financial analysis and post-divorce financial implications. As a CDFA®, she can accomplish her primary objective to help clients establish and maintain financial health even in the midst of a difficult life challenge such as divorce or separation. Karen is also the co-author of “Stress-Free Divorce”, Vol. 1, published in April 2017.