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How Courts Determine Child Support in Joint Custody Arrangements

Child support payments typically provide a smoother adjustment to changes in family structure, continuity, and financial stability, lowering the entire family’s stress levels. These payments, designed to benefit a child of divorce, tend to positively impact their overall well-being, school performance, feelings of security, and social adjustment. Even in joint custody arrangements, a parent should continue to provide child support. The more amicable the parents’ relationship is, the more flexible the support arrangements can be, although the courts ultimately determine child support in joint custody arrangements.

Joint Custody and Child Support

Joint custody is the shared physical and legal custody of a child (children) after a parents’ separation or divorce. In truth, divorce, when you have children, does not necessarily solve problems, but it does change them. Parents must still share the daily responsibilities of child-rearing, including financial obligations. How these joint custody arrangements function will impact child support amounts paid and received.

A child custody lawyer can explain why physical custody agreements usually play the largest role in determining child support. Legal custody determinations are less influential than, for instance, the number of nights a child spends with each parent when assessing child support. The 2008 Child Support Standards Act (CSSA) governs obligations for child support; however, the CSSA does not explicitly state how much each parent owes, receives, or how to handle joint custody child support.

How Child Support is Determined

Individual courts must determine a parent’s child support responsibilities within the confines of federal law, like the CSSA, and applicable state law. Rules in each state vary widely, dependent on many factors like parent incomes, specific needs of the child (children), the number of nights spent in each home, and local laws. The CSSA has the authority to require a court to direct a parent without daily child responsibilities to pay a share of child support.

If physical custody of the child is to be split equally between parents, a court may opt not to assign child support to either parent and divide the total support obligation in half, but this is not always the case. Both parents’ income is a determining factor. For example, if the support amount for one parent is $500 a month, based on both parents’ full financial picture, and the parent has 50% physical custody of the child, their payment would reduce to $250 per month. This calculation still provides some child support to assist in maintaining the child’s home life with the other parent, even though physical custody is an even split.

In other examples, after the total support obligation is determined, the parent with the higher income (typically, the larger responsibility of child support) may be considered the non-custodial parent. The more financially affluent parent will have to pay that share unless the court deems the employed formula result unfair. The court will have the discretion to order a new child support amount they believe is fair to both parents and the child’s best interest (children).

Additional Financial Factors

Additional factors that play a role in the support obligation include each parent’s ability to provide and maintain safe and adequate separate housing for the child and cope with extraordinary expenses arising from a joint custody arrangement like clothing, travel expenses, or additional childcare.

The Income Shares Model assigns a percentage of financial responsibility to each parent, with most states allocating child support using this model. A more complicated form of this model is the Melson Formula which uses the principles of the income shares model.

There is also a Percentage of Income Model which bases child support on each parent’s income and physical time spent with that parent. States will often use hybrid formula methods to determine child support obligations.

Attempting to Reduce Income and Child Support Obligations

Some parents may purposely lower their efforts to earn income to reduce child support obligations. If the courts believe a parent is under or unemployed voluntarily, they may impute income to them. The judge will have child support calculations based on what a parent should earn rather than their actual income.

Legitimately Reduced Income

There are circumstances when parents do not earn up to their potential for legitimate reasons. Being laid off or pursuing higher education may preclude a judge from imputing income. Typically the courts will look at the parent’s level of education, occupational qualifications, recent work history, general pay levels, and job opportunities in the community before making a decision.

Even if parents create and agree on a child support arrangement independently, state law almost always requires a judge to approve the agreed child support amount. The courts are duty-bound to prioritize a child’s best interests. Because of this responsibility, judges will rarely approve an agreement with zero child support except for cases where a non-custodial parent’s medical condition precludes their ability to work.

Modifying Child Support

It is permissible to modify child support orders, but modifications must receive judge approval. If the parents cannot agree, filing a written request (a motion) to the same court that issued the original order is the next step. The judge’s review will look for significant changes in circumstances since the first order of support issue so that the court system is not overburdened with repetitive and frequent modification requests.

It is possible to have a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) clause written into the initial child support order. This COLA will automatically increase child support payments according to a schedule tied to economic indicators like the Consumer Price Index. The COLA clause may eliminate any need for modification requests, and some states require child support orders include the clause. It will modify child support obligation amounts solely on cost-of-living increases and does not negate the ability for a court review of support for other factors like tuition, special needs, unreimbursed medical expenses, and more.

In principle, child support obligations signal that children of divorce are entitled to the same level of financial support as when their parents were married or living together. While both parents want to feel the arrangement is fair, the child or children is the primary focus. A family law attorney or even a mediator (often a retired judge) can expedite child support negotiations and maintain a focus on practical matters. Divorce is an emotionally challenging time for the entire family system; however, innocent children deserve to receive priority for their care and well-being. Prioritizing children is the function of the court system when determining child support in joint custody arrangements.

Please contact our Houston office today at (713) 582-5088 or schedule a consultation to discuss your legal matters. We would be happy to help you and welcome your call.

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