NPO publishes blog articles to inform and to stimulate conversation about issues of importance to NPO's mission. All blog articles express the opinions of the authors as individuals and do not necessarily reflect the views of National Parents Organization, its Board of Directors, or its executives.
The 2009 Child Support Guidelines
The Child Support Guidelines are a formula together with a set of policies that determine how much child support must be paid. A new set of Guidelines for Massachusetts was issued on November 5, 2008, to take effect on January 1, 2009. The 2009 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines are a mixed bag for families and children, with many improvements coupled with some steps backward. The results mean that we must go back to work. We plan to redouble our efforts against those who do not accept the importance of fathers except as Payers. It will be of little use to attempt much between now and the end of this year, as the Legislature is in lame duck session, the holidays are coming up, and all attention is on Obama and on the economy. We will develop our strategies during the remainder of this year (so come to the November 18 meeting in Wellesley, MA -- more information to come) and will hit the ground running in 2009. The Process In Massachusetts, the power to promulgate the Child Support Guidelines has been given to the Chief Justice for Administration and Management ("CJAM') Robert A. Mulligan. Under federal law, Massachusetts must review its Guidelines not less than every four years, and revise them if it seems appropriate. That means they must be reviewed again by January 1, 2013, but can be reviewed again sooner if desired. Over two years ago, Chief Justice Mulligan appointed a Task Force to advise him on the revision. There were twelve members of the Task Force originally, but the number was reduced to eleven due to retirement of a member. The Task Force has met every month for two years, each meeting lasting all day, and with a great deal of work between meetings. The membership and affiliations of the Task Force can be found on the website of the Trial Court. All members were either attorneys or judges except for one economist, one Family Service Officer of the family courts, a high official of the Office of Child Support Enforcement (also an attorney), and Dr. Ned Holstein, MD, MS of Fathers & Families. The job of the Task Force has been to advise Chief Justice Mulligan, but the ultimate authority for promulgating new Guidelines remained with him. Chief Justice Mulligan has chosen to follow the recommendations of the Task Force almost exactly. The 2009 Guidelines The new Guidelines take effect January 1, 2009. The report of the Task Force can be read HERE, as can the Minority Report, principally authored by Ned Holstein (with concurrence in part by two other members of the Task Force.) I urge you to read the Minority Report, and to study the 2009 Guidelines carefully. If you want to jump straight to the calculations without reading the entire Guidelines, click HERE. The 2009 Guidelines show many improvements over earlier Guidelines, many of which are the direct result of activism by Fathers & Families. Because of our efforts, the review process has been made far more open and public than ever before. In 2000, we fought for, and won, public hearings on the Guidelines, which in the past had been developed secretly and without public input. As a result, there have been 13 public hearings on the Guidelines since then, with many hundreds of non-custodial parents and others testifying. Moreover, as a result of our pressure, the members of the Task Force who have advised the CJAM are now publicly known, whereas in the past, it has been impossible to know from whom the CJAM has sought advice. Moreover, the Majority and Minority Reports make it possible to know how various conclusions were arrived at, another matter that has been shrouded in secrecy in the past. Also as a result of our activism, Fathers & Families has been represented on the Task Force for the first time. Former Principle 3 has been dropped from the 2009 Guidelines, as Fathers & Families has long urged. This principle aspired "To provide the standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the family been intact.' While this is a noble aspiration, in practice it is rarely attainable without impoverishing the Payor, which is not in a child"s best interests. Fathers & Families has also fought for years to eliminate the so-called "$20,000 disregard' of custodial parent income. This year, we have won that battle. The former Guidelines gave the appearance of moderating child support orders based on the earnings of the custodial parent, but this was largely undermined for poor and middle class families by an instruction to disregard the first $20,000 of income of the custodial parent in the calculation. This provision no longer exists. All income of the custodial parent now counts. The automatic 10% increase in the child support order for children age 13 or over has been eliminated. In the past it has been extremely difficult to get one"s child support order modified if one"s income changed. To even have the matter heard in court, it was required that the change in income would cause a change in the child support order of at least 20%. As Fathers & Families has repeatedly urged, any change in income is now sufficient to qualify one to be heard in court for a modification. This may be very important as we enter into a recession. Fathers & Families has pointed out for many years that shared parenting is the best arrangement for children, and that the Guidelines should adjust the child support order when there is shared parenting. Our pressure has borne fruit. This concept has been adopted in the 2009 Guidelines for cases where parenting is equal or approximately equal. In the past, the child care credit was available only to the custodial parent, and the cost of child care could be deducted regardless of the reason for putting the child into care. Fathers & Families fought for and won provisions such that the deduction for child care expenses is now available to either party, and to qualify, child care must in most cases be for the purpose of gainful employment. A big issue for Fathers & Families has been child support orders based on income from a second job or overtime work. But now, as a result of our activism, the new Guidelines state that such income should be taken into account only at the time the child support order is established, but that if such second job/overtime income is acquired later on, it should not usually be counted at the time of a subsequent modification of the child support order. This provision creates a chance for Payors to work their way out of the extreme financial distress that excessive child support orders can create. (This provision also applies to Recipients.) Many of these improvements create a platform for further improvements in the future. The relative openness of the process, the elimination of Principle 3, the elimination of the $20,000 custodial parent disregard, a recognition that as income rises the proportion that is devoted to child support should fall, the adjustment for shared parenting and the disallowance of second job/overtime income in some circumstances all create precedents for further improvements in the future. Areas of No Significant Change On several issues of importance to Fathers & Families, the 2009 Guidelines are not significantly different from the earlier Guidelines, despite intensive efforts to persuade the Task Force. There is still no true self-support reserve for the very poorest Payors. For instance, even someone earning only $7,800 per year, already in poverty, must pay $1,638 in child support for one child, pushing him/her close to homelessness. There is no cap on child support for the very wealthy. Very wealthy Payors may still be paying for "three ponies' for the child by court order. The expenses of second families still cannot be used as a reason to decrease an existing child support order, although such expenses still can be used as a defense to a request to increase the child support order. Thus, the wellbeing of children of second families is often ignored by the Guidelines. A child of a second family is often raised in a household that is quite less well off than the household of the first child, to which child support is being paid. Massachusetts remains the only state other than Hawaii that allows child support to age 23. This has been established by statute, so the CJAM cannot eliminate child support before the age of 23, but it would be possible to limit the amount substantially. The Task Force declined to recommend reasonable limitations on the payments for college expenses that can be ordered. It stands to common sense that the Recipient of child support should expend the money on behalf of the child, as well as some of his/her own funds, and should have primary responsibility for purchasing clothes, food, school supplies, entertainment, sports activities etc for the child. Payors often find that Recipients demand that they purchase items for children that ought to be covered by the child support or by the Recipient"s own income. Despite Fathers & Families" efforts, the Task Force declined to state these basic obligations of the Recipient to the child. Steps Backward Despite the numerous improvements described above, overall child support levels remain too high, and in many cases are made yet higher than they were. This is despite the fact that even with the existing Guidelines, it is already quite clear that a Recipient usually has a substantially better standard of living than a Payor unless she/he has little or no earnings of her own. In comparison to the present Guidelines, the following generalizations apply to the 2009 Guidelines (but one should make exact calculations using the Guidelines Work Sheet) All statements below apply to one child and disregard the additional costs of health insurance and child care. For Payors earning from about $10,000 to about $50,000: • If the Recipient earns up to about $20,000, there will be child support increases in the range of about 12% to 17%. In other words, the gains Fathers & Families won in 2001 will be reversed for this group, but no worse. • If the Recipient earns about $25,000 or more, the increases can be quite significant, from about 30% to an amount that is more than triple the present order. The bigger increases occur in cases in which the Recipient earns more than the Payor. Although the percentage increases can be great, the actual dollar amounts are not great in most cases, since the existing child support orders in these cases are not that high. For Payors earning between about $50,000 and $100,000: • There will be little overall change in the basic child support order if the Recipient earns less than about $25,000. • If the Recipient earns from about $25,000 to about $75,000, the child support order will increase substantially, anywhere from about 30% to about 100% (double the existing order). • If the Recipient earns even more than $75,000, the increase will be anywhere from about 80% to 200% (triple the existing order). Although the percentage increases are great in cases involving higher-earning Recipients, the dollar amounts are not great in most cases, since the existing child support orders in these cases are not that high. For Payors earning more than about $100,000: Whether the child support order will increase or decrease depends on how the existing order was determined. The existing Guidelines do not cover cases in which either party earns over $100,000. Nevertheless, many judges applied the Guidelines formula covertly in many high income cases. If that was true in your case, then the 2009 Guidelines will result in decreases of from 10% to 20%. But if the court previously made a child support order that was lower than application of the Guidelines formula would have produced, then the 2009 Guidelines might mean an increase for you. Other Considerations There will almost certainly be an order to provide health insurance under the 2009 Guidelines. Under the existing Guidelines, if you pay for health insurance, you recover half of that cost through an offsetting decrease in your child support order. Now the offset will only be in the range of about 20% to 25%. Likewise, whoever pays for child care will enjoy an adjustment of only 20% to 25% on the child support order, whereas currently it is 50%. The Future We are in the paradoxical situation that the 2009 Guidelines have adopted a number of principles and concepts for which Fathers & Families has long fought, but the actual amounts of child support have made an inequitable situation worse in most cases. To me, this means that renewed and increased activism can take better principles and concepts and turn them into better Guidelines. Our success or failure will depend on the energy and commitment of our members. If members support Fathers & Families financially, attend public hearings, contact their legislators, write to the media, participate in our meetings, recruit new members, volunteer to help on a regular basis, and do all the other things that must be done, we will prevail. We allowed ourselves to be outgunned in the present round. Let"s come back full force to make these Guidelines fair to children, mothers and fathers. Please tell us what you think – and what you are going to do -- below.