By Bill Bishop, Arizona Divorce and Family Law Attorney
*Certified Family Law Specialist, Arizona Board Of Legal Specialization
Bishop Law Office P.C.
SUMMARY OF ARIZONA CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES:
Child Support in Arizona is determined pursuant to the Arizona Child Support Guidelines.
The Arizona Child Support Guidelines can be somewhat complex in application where various factors are in dispute. The following is a basic description of how the Child Support Guidelines work for the reader’s ease of understanding.
Child Support is based upon the parties’ combined incomes (i.e. the higher the incomes, the more the combined child support obligation. In order to determine child support pursuant to the Arizona Child Support Guidelines, you first insert both parties’ incomes, which results in a basic child support obligation attributed to both parties. The child support obligation is divided between the parties pursuant to percentage of their respective income.
For example, if Mother earns $7,500.00 per month, and Father earns $2,500.00 per month, the percentage is 75% Mother and 25% Father. This does not mean that Mother owes Father a child support obligation. If Mother is the primary residential parent, Father may owe Mother 25% of the child support obligation while Mother “assumes” 75% of the obligation through her normal financial support of the children while they are in her primary care.
If the parties have equal income and equal parenting time, there may not be a child support order. If one party is the primary residential parent, the other party will generally have to pay child support (but not always depending upon the circumstances).
The more children the parties have, the higher the child support obligation. However, such is not a direct correlation (i.e. having two children does not result in a child support that is double that realized if the parties only have one child). Rather, the Child Support Guidelines recognize an economy of scale (i.e. that it does not cost two times more to raise two child rather than one).
The obligated party often does not realize the party receiving child support also has a child support obligation. Such is realized pursuant to the assumption that the cost of providing primary support for the children exceeds the amount received in monthly child support.
After inserting each parties’ incomes, there are various adjustments that take place before determining the final child support obligation:
1. If one parent pays spousal maintenance to the other parent, the paying parent’s income is decreased and the recipient parent’s income is increased by the amount of such spousal maintenance award. This changes the percentages of the parties’ respective incomes, which in turn changes the amount of the child support obligation.
2. If a party has other children (i.e. children from prior or subsequent relationships), such party will receive a further downward adjustment to their income in the amount of their child support obligation (or presumed inherent child support obligation pursuant to the guidelines), which results in a change to the percentages.
3. The party who pays the health care insurance for the children is credited with the amount of such payments so that each party pays a percentage of such obligation pursuant to their respective adjusted incomes
4. In the same regard, the party who pays the child care costs for the children is credited with the amount of such payments so that each party pays a percentage of such obligation pursuant to their adjusted incomes.
5. If one or more children are twelve years old or older, such will result in a 10% increase to the base support obligation.
6. Child support is also adjusted pursuant to the parenting time that the paying party exercises. The more the parenting time, the higher the adjustment. If the parents share equal parenting time, the largest adjustment applies. In such event, there is merely an equalization of the child support obligations between the two parties which generally results in an even lower child support obligation (or no child support obligation if the parties’ incomes are substantially equal).
The Supreme Court of Arizona provides a child support calculator on line which is free of charge. You can merely log on to the website and insert both parties’ incomes and adjustments as described above in order to calculate child support. Because not all factors are not always known, you can insert numerous scenarios (i.e. changes in incomes, anticipated changes in parenting time, termination of child care expenses, etc.) in order to assess various situations.
MORE IN DEPTH DISCUSSION REGARDING THE DIFFERENT SECTIONS OF THE ARIZONA CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES:
The following is a more in depth summary of each section of the Child Support Guidelines. Such descriptions have been drafted for the ease of reading and understanding. Not all sections and provisions of the Child Support Guidelines are addressed herein. For a review of the full text of the Arizona Child Support Guidelines, click here.
Background: The Arizona Child Support Guidelines Follow the “Income Shares Model”. Such is based upon extensive research regarding the approximate amounts which would have been spent on the children if the parents and children were living together. Each parent contributes his / her proportionate share of the total child support amount as described previously.
Author’s Note: The Child Support Guidelines are not perfect for the reason that every situation is different. The guidelines are intended to provide some uniformity, however. The Guidelines do allow for deviations to the guidelines child support amount in some circumstances, however, the different judges are not consistent with one another regarding the circumstances that they feel warrant a deviation.
Section 2 – “Premises”
Child Support obligations have priority over all other financial obligations. The existence of other financial commitments and debts is generally not a reason for the failure to pay child support, or for a deviation from the guidelines.
Author’s Note: If your income changes or the other party’s income changes, or if other circumstances change, you will need to file a modification proceeding. You cannot just reduce your child support without a Court order. For example, if one of the children graduates, that does not mean that you can reduce your child support without a court order. Even if the other party agrees to a reduction, such should be confirmed in writing and stipulated to pursuant to a formal court order. Otherwise, you may have a very unpleasant shock later when the other parent asks for substantial child support arrears that you thought you did not have to pay.
Section 3 – “Presumption”
It is presumed that the child support guidelines amount is the sum to be ordered. Thus, general arguments that the other parent is not spending the child support amounts on the children, and other ‘fairness’ arguments will likely fail. The parent receiving child support has no obligation to show the paying party what he or she is spending the child support funds on.
Other arguments, such as the other party is not working to full capacity, is voluntarily underemployed, that a deviation should be entered, and other issues are still fair game.
Section 4 – “Duration of Child Support”
The presumptive duration for child support is until the youngest child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever is later (but in no event later than 19 years old). There are some exceptions regarding special needs children.
Author’s Note: You should always request that the court stop any order of assignment at least 60 days in advance of the presumptive termination of the child support order to avoid being over-garnished.
Section 5 – “Determination of The Gross Income of the Parents”
Gross income for purposes of the Guidelines means income from “any” source. Such includes but is not limited to salaries, commissions, bonuses, investment income, severance pay, pensions, interest, trust income, social security benefits for the parent, unemployment benefits, disability benefits, recurring gifts, spousal maintenance etc. Seasonal or fluctuating income is to be annualized (i.e. you take the yearly amount and divide it by 12 to come up with an average monthly amount). If the income is not recurring or continuing, the Court has the discretion not to include it. Courts generally do not include overtime or income from second jobs unless such income is consistent and regular and expected to continue in the future. State or federal assistance is generally not included in an income determination. Child support received pursuant to another child is not included.
Certain employment benefits such as a company providing an employee a car for personal use may be counted as additional income.
Income from self employment means gross receipts minus ordinary and necessary expenses required to produce such income. Thus, the Court can add back certain types of write offs such as equipment and automobile depreciation, personal car expenses run through the business, and other more personal type of expenses – even if such are legitimate tax write-offs. The issue is whether such expenses “reduce personal living expenses”. If so, such may be added to a person’s income.
Author’s Note: The determination of a party’s gross income for child support purposes can be one of the most controversial issues in a child support case. When one of the parties is self employed, receives cash, writes off business expenses through the company, etc., it can be difficult to determine a fair amount of income to attribute to such person. You can always ask the Court to appoint a C.P.A. to provide an analysis of such person’s true income.
If a person is unemployed or working below full earning capacity, the Court may attribute additional income depending upon the circumstances. It depends upon whether such is a voluntary choice and not for reasonable cause. If such unemployment or reduction of income is not for reasonable cause, the Court may attribute additional income up to a party’s earning capacity. Generally a party is attributed at least minimum wage. If income is attributed however, appropriate child care costs may also be attributed (i.e. a parent who is staying home with a child, thus avoiding child care costs, should not be attributed full income without also assessing child care costs). Reasonable cause for unemployment or underemployment may include such things as a parent’s physical or mental disabilities, whether a parent is engaged in reasonable career or occupational training or education, or has a child with needs that limit a parent’s ability to work.
A parent’s new spouse’s income is not treated as income under the guidelines. Author’s Note: A parent’s spouse’s income, however, may provide a legitimate basis for a child support deviation as addressed in Section 20 below.
Section 6 – “Adjustments To Gross Income”
This section regards adjustments to one’s gross income for purposes of calculating the child support percentages, and adjustments to the child support award itself.
Adjustments to income include spousal maintenance, i.e if you are paying spousal maintenance (alimony) to the other parent, your income is reduced and the other parent’s income is increased by such amount. If you have other children that are not part of the child support award (for example, children with your new spouse), your income is reduced as well. Keep in mind that there is no adjustment for step children. Rather, you must be the biological or adoptive parent for such adjustment to apply.
Adjustments to the child support award once incomes are determined are made in order to reflect each party’s respective contributions towards the child’s insurance or child care costs. Thus, even if one parent is paying the entire amount, the child support award will be adjusted so that the other parent’s proportionate percentage of such obligation is factored.
Section 8 explains that the guidelines stop at the combined gross income of $20,000.00 per month between the two parents. If the combined incomes exceed this, such excess income is relevant only to the final percentages. The base child support amount stops at the combined gross income of $20,000.00. Such also stops at six children, so if there are more than six children, there is no increase in child support absent a deviation. A party can always attempt to argue a higher child support obligation than this, but has the burden to prove that a higher amount is reasonable and supported by the evidence (See Section 20 regarding deviations to the guidelines child support amount). Generally, Courts are reluctant to provide for significant deviations from the guidelines without specific good reasons for doing so.
Section 9.A. addresses medical and other health care insurance for the children. The Court is required to order that one of the parents provide such coverage, although both parents generally share the cost through the overall child support calculation. As stated in the initial portion of this article, the cost for such insurance is divided pursuant to income and child support contribution. If such coverage covers other persons other than the children in question, the amount of insurance payment applicable to the children at issue is generally pro-rated. Parents are not obligated to provide dental and vision coverage, but will generally receive credit if they do provide such coverage.
The courts generally assign each parent a percentage he or she is required to pay toward uncovered health care expenses. Such is based again on the percentage of adjusted income / child support contribution.
Requests for reimbursement of medical and other health care expenses that are not covered by insurance are supposed to be made within 180 days after the date of services. The other party is supposed to pay his or her reimbursement share within 45 days of receipt of request. Such requests for reimbursement should include proof of services provided, proof of what the insurance company covered, and proof of the net payment made for the remaining sums owed.
Section 9.B addresses child care costs. Such are to be annualized (for example, if you only use summer child care, you would take the overall expense and divide such by 12 to come up with a monthly average). As noted in the initial section of this article, child care costs are divided proportionate to adjusted income / child support contribution. One party is generally assigned the overall cost, but then the other parent pays their portion through the final child support calculation. Tax credits for child care costs are included in the final calculations so that both parties share such benefit even if only one party can claim it on his or her tax returns.
Private school costs may be included in the overall child support calculations. However, such must generally be ordered by the Court or agreed upon by the parents.
Special needs children: The Guidelines may be adjusted to provide for special needs or handicapped children.
Older child adjustment: 10% is added to the basic child support obligation for children over 12. Such is pro-rated if some children are over 12 and others are under 12 (for example if one child is over 12, and one child is under 12, a 5% adjustment will apply).
Section 11 – “Adjustment For Costs Associated With Parenting Time
The Child Support Guidelines attempt to further apportion the costs associated with the children pursuant to each parties’ respective parenting time. The Guidelines assume that the more parenting time one has, the more he or she spends for the benefit of the children.
Author’s Note: Time periods that the child is in school or child care are not supposed to be considered in determining the non-custodial parent’s parenting time, however, Courts often overlook this. If a party is requesting a parenting time adjustment for periods that the child is in school or day care, such provision of the Guidelines should be addressed to the Court.
The parenting time adjustments set forth by the Guidelines are rounded up. Such are set forth as follows:
12 hours or more = one day.
6 to 11 hours = ½ day.
3 to 5 hours = 1/4 day.
Less than 3 hours may count as 1/4 day if meals or other expenses are incurred.
Once you add the total number of days during the year, the parenting time adjustment is inserted. For example, 116 – 129 days per year requires an adjustment of .195 or 19.5%. See the Child Support Guidelines for the specific adjustment chart.
Author’s Note: All of these percentages etc. sound complicated, but the Child Support Guidelines calculator only requires that you insert the base information. The program then calculates the support obligation for you based upon the information inserted.
Section 12 – “Equal Custody”
If the time spent with each parent is essentially equal, the child support obligation is generally affected to the most substantial degree. A parenting time adjustment no longer applies. Rather, you take each party’s child support obligation and divide it by two so that there is merely an equalization sum paid from the higher income parent. The child support pursuant to an equal time sharing arrangement is generally much less than child support where a party has less than equal time and receives a percentage adjustment.
Section 16 – “Multiple Children, Divided Custody”
Things get a bit more complicated where the parties have divided custody, i.e where one parent is the primary custodial parent for one or more of the children, while the other parent is primary custodian for one or more of the other children.
Generally speaking, you would prepare a child support worksheet which calculates the child support mother owes father based upon the children in his care, and another child support worksheet which calculates the child support father owes mother based upon the children in her care. You then offset the two. The party with the higher child support obligation thus owes the other party the difference.
Section 18 – “Travel Expenses Associated With Parenting Time”
If the parents reside in different states, the Court may allocate travel costs associated with parenting time. Travel costs can be very expensive, especially when the children are young and cannot fly alone. The Courts will generally consider the parents’ respective incomes in determining the allocation of travel costs, as well as the reason for the parents residing in different states (i.e. did a parent voluntarily move to the different state, thus creating the situation?).
Section 20 – “Deviations”
The Court has the ability to deviate from the Child Support Guidelines. Historically, the Courts have been reluctant to provide for substantial deviations. However, the Courts have seemed to become more open minded to such deviations in light of recent case law. The Court can deviate from the guidelines if it finds that the application of the guidelines would be inappropriate in the particular case, the best interests of the child is considered, and other procedural requirements are followed. The Court can look to what the children’s standard of living would be in an intact household (i.e. where the parents and the children were all residing together), and adjust the child support amount so that the parents can provide a similar standard of living for the children in both households. These are fairly broad factors, thus the Court has a great deal of discretion in providing for an upwards or downwards deviation in child support.
Section 27 – “Federal Tax Exemption For Dependent Children”
The tax exemptions for the minor children are generally divided proportionate to adjusted gross income / child support contribution. For example, if one parent pays 67 % of the overall child support obligation, such parent should be able to claim the children two out of every three tax years. One must generally be current in his or her child support payments (including any scheduled arrears payments) by the end of the year in order to be able to claim such tax benefits.
While a party’s child support obligation is pretty much standard, the Court does have substantial discretion in many of the sub-issues, such as determining what income should be attributed toward a party, and whether a deviation is appropriate.