MODIFYING CHILD SUPPORT AND THE NEW GUIDELINES

Several months ago I described the process for calculating child support under Maine law.[1]  However, a child support order issued by the Maine Family Court is not etched in stone and frequently people ask whether their child support obligation can be changed.  As with any question asked of a lawyer, the only accurate answer is “it depends.”

As a general matter, in order to change a child support order, or any other order relating to parental rights and responsibilities, the party seeking the change must file a motion to modify with the Court alleging that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that justifies changing the existing order.  Exactly what constitutes a substantial change in circumstances can vary greatly from one case to another and it would be impossible to list all of the possible iterations of a substantial change here.  However, as a general rule, if the circumstances that led to the original child support calculation have changed in some way that would result in a new child support calculation being fifteen percent higher or lower than the existing order then the Court will find a substantial change in circumstances and modify the child support obligation accordingly.

Thus, if you currently pay child support and you are laid off from work or are forced to take a new position with substantially lower income you probably have grounds to modify your child support obligation.  Bear in mind, though, that quitting your job in order to stop paying will never be successful because the Court will base its calculation on your actual income or your earning capacity, whichever is higher.  If you are earning $40,000 a year working full time but you want to spend more time doing other things so you scale back to part-time and make only $25,000 a year the Court is almost certain to rule that you are “voluntarily underemployed” and your earning capacity is still $40,000.  Under these circumstances, even though your actual income would be substantially lower, your child support obligation would likely remain the same because it would be based on your earning capacity as opposed to your actual income.

A change in income is not the only reason a child support order might be modified.  In Maine, child support is calculated based on three factors:  1) the Maine Child Support Guidelines established by the Legislature which is based on the incomes of the parties; 2) health insurance costs for the child, if any; and, 3) daycare costs for the child, if any.[2]  The child support obligation is determined by adding those three figures together and each parent being responsible for his or her portion of the total based on his or her percentage of the parties’ joint income.

These days we are frequently hearing about the cost of health insurance increasing dramatically.  If such an increase would result in the existing child support obligation changing by at least fifteen percent, the Court would modify the child support obligation accordingly.  The same would be true if child care costs substantially increased.

One factor in a child support calculation that rarely changes, and therefore, is not something that sends people back to court very often is the basic child support obligation derived from the Maine Child Support Guidelines.  Under Maine law, specific child support obligations are promulgated by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).  These figures are updated by DHHS from time to time.  Until recently, the guidelines differentiated between children that were under twelve years old and those twelve and up.  The theory, apparently, was that older children are more expensive.  Last summer DHHS issued a revision to the child support guidelines, however, the Department did not simply increase the obligations as it had done in the past, but rather, elected to modify the guidelines considerably by eliminating the two-tiers based on the age of children.  The new child support guidelines, which took effect on July 29, 2016, have a single child support figure for various income levels that no longer differentiate based on the age of the child.[3]

Simply comparing and contrasting the old and new charts lead to the conclusion that the updated guidelines offer a compromise such that the basic support obligations for younger children is slightly higher and the basic support obligation for older children is somewhat lower.  The differences are not substantial in and of themselves but when coupled with modest changes in income, health insurance costs, or child care costs, could lead to a difference of fifteen percent or more in the overall child support obligation.  As stated above, this justifies a modification to an existing child support order.

While much of what is written above makes perfect sense to family law attorneys who confront these issues on a daily basis, to others it can feel impossibly complicated and confusing.  If you think the child support you are receiving, or paying, seems too low, or too high, and you would like to find out about modifying the existing child support order, we encourage you to contact one of our experienced family law attorneys.

 

[1]  The original article can be found here:  http://www.rudmanwinchell.com/child-support-is-how-much

 

[2]  The complete Maine Child Support Guidelines can be located at: http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/19-A/title19-Ach63sec0.html

[3]  The complete Maine Child Support Guidelines can be located at: http://www.mainelegislature.org/legis/statutes/19-A/title19-Ach63sec0.html with the actual chart of child support obligations beginning on page 30.