When I began practicing family law in 1987, child support awards were unpredictable and often varied from county to county and judge to judge. Early in my career, child support laws evolved with the introduction of statutory guidelines. Child support guidelines were initially adopted in Maryland in 1989. A long-past-due update became effective on October 1, 2010. The guideline tables were further refined as of July 1, 2022.
These guidelines have lent much needed uniformity to child support disputes. Payment obligations are set according to a formula which considers each party's gross income and allots responsibility proportionately. For example, let’s assume the following facts:
In this hypothetical, the father's child support payments will be $1,297 per month or $301.63 per week. The July 1, 2022, statutory change resulted in an approximately $200 monthly deduction for this dad. Child support obligations are greater when work-related child care, private school and/or extraordinary medical expenses are factored into the equation.
Courts may consider certain additional factors and deviate from the guidelines. Child support will be reduced if alimony is paid to the other party or if the payor has pre-existing child support obligations. Other expenses — such as mortgage payments, assumption of marital debt and college education — might reduce payments. Lastly, if a parent has the ability and opportunity to work but chooses not to do so, he or she is said to be "voluntarily impoverished." The court will attribute "potential income" to this parent, meaning an amount that he or she should be earning. Potential income is only ascribed to parents of children older than 2.
Prior to the change that took effect on October 1, 2020, a different formula was used in which the non-custodial or visiting spouse had the child for greater than 35% of the overnights in a given year. This formula results in a lower level of support, due to the presumption that the parent having "shared physical custody" will bear some of the burden for direct expenses. If the father in the above scenario has shared physical custody, something that he would obtain if his weekends extended to Monday, and if his Wednesday dinner visit extended overnight, then mother would owe father $459 per month, a swing of $1,951 per month, attributable to three extra overnights in a two-week period.
With the October 1, 2020, change, the “cliff” effect from application of the shared physical custody guidelines has been smoothed a bit. The statute lowered that number of overnights from 35% to 25% or from 128 to 92. The hope is that this change will result in less haggling over how many overnights each parent may have with the children.
A common misconception involves the notion that there is some connection between the obligation to pay child support and the right to visitation. A custodial parent may attempt to deny visitation to a former spouse who has fallen behind on child support. Conversely, a parent who has been unreasonably denied access to her child may suspend payments. In either case, the court will apply its version of the old axiom "two wrongs do not make a right."
The proper response by the party who has been wronged is to file a petition for contempt, whereby the offending party will be sanctioned by the court and warned against further nonpayment of support or interference with visitation privileges.
Custody and support orders are never final. Maryland courts always retain the power to modify child support, based upon a showing of a material change in circumstances. Typically, a change in circumstance, which allows a court to revisit child support, involves job loss, significant changes in income and/or substantial changes in a minor child's financial needs. If child support has not been reviewed for several years, it may be time to do so, in order to assess whether or not a modification is justified, particularly in light of the enactment of the new statute, modifying the applicable formulas that are applied.
Child support is one of many issues to address when a marriage falters. Certainly, if you find yourself contemplating separation or divorce, you will have questions about support and other issues. You should consult with an attorney who is familiar with this area of the law and who will assist you in making informed decisions.
If you need further information regarding this subject, you can contact the Law Office of David V. Diggs LLC, located at 8684 Veterans Highway, suite 302, in Millersville. Call 410-244-1189 or email email@example.com.
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