New child support guidelines go into effect August 1, 2013

When a couple with children divorces, one of the most important issues that needs to be determined is the amount of child support which one parent will pay to the parent who has custody of the children for the majority of the time. Child support is determined in court, and the judge uses statutory child support guidelines to calculate the amount of support. There is a rebuttable presumption that the amount of support resulting from the application of the guidelines is the appropriate amount of support.

Beginning in 1988, the federal government required each state to establish child support guidelines. Every four years, the state legislature of each state must review its guidelines to ensure they are correct, and if not, the guidelines may be revised. The Massachusetts Legislature recently reviewed the child support guidelines and, although many aspects of the guidelines remain the same as the previous guidelines, the Legislature did make several changes.

Changes to the guidelines

In the preamble to the guidelines, the first paragraph formerly contained the following sentence: "Existing orders and judgments less than three years old as of the effective date of these guidelines shall not be modified unless the income of one or both parties has changed or other new circumstance warrants modification." A recent decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, Morales v. Morales, found that this provision was inconsistent with a statute providing that modification of child support for the children of divorced parents is presumptively required whenever there is an inconsistency between the amount of support to be paid under the existing order and the amount that the guidelines would require to be paid. Thus, in the 2013 preamble, this sentence and its requirement as to modification are now gone.

The guidelines have also changed when the parents have a high combined income. The 2009 guidelines state that they do not apply where the combined annual gross income of the parents exceeds $250,000. Instead, when the parents' income exceeded that amount, the court was supposed to consider the award of support at the $250,000 level as the minimum presumptive order and, at its discretion, award additional support. Under the new guidelines, the court should apply the guidelines to the first $250,000 in the same proportion as the recipient's and payor's actual income as provided on the guidelines worksheet.

With respect to parenting time, the 2013 guidelines contain a new provision tying in the possibility of an upward adjustment to the amount of child support available to the residential parent. Although both the 2009 and 2013 guidelines state that they are based on the children having a primary residence with one parent and spending about one-third of the time with the other parent, the new guidelines add that if the non-residential parent spends less than one-third of the time with his or her children, the court may adjust the amount of support to an amount higher than that provided under the guidelines.

Effect of the changes

There are additional amendments to the child support guidelines not discussed here. If you are considering divorcing your spouse or if you find yourself in the position of being responsible for child support, a family law attorney will be able to explain the effects of the new changes to the child support guidelines to your circumstances. An attorney who is familiar with the child support laws can help you understand your rights and obligations.