The Anatomy of a Divorce,
Part 5: Child Support
Unlike many other issues that must be
resolved in a divorce, determining the child support obligation is a relatively
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The Anatomy of a Divorce, Part 1:
The Anatomy of a Divorce, Part 2:
The Anatomy of a Divorce, Part 3:
The Anatomy of a Divorce, Part 4:
Child Custody and Access
The Anatomy of a Divorce, Part 6:
The Anatomy of a Divorce, Part 7:
Awards of Attorney's Fees
More Articles on Divorce-Related
A driving force impacting the resolution of child custody
(officially termed "decision-making authority") and access issues is the responsibility for child support and amount of child
support to be paid.
Many factors influence the child support order ultimately
entered by the Court, including any spousal maintenance award (which will be
discussed more fully in the next article in this series). Arizona follows the
Income Shares Model through its
Child Support Guidelines. The significant factors considered in applying the guidelines
include the following:
combined income of the parties.
presence of other children of the parties not common to the marriage, and any
support paid or received for them.
necessary daycare costs.
dental and vision insurance premium costs.
special medical, educational or similar costs.
of time the child actually spends with the obligor parent (i.e., the parent who
is required to pay child support to the other, or “obligee” parent).
Each of the above factors is, in
turn, affected by other factors that will not be addressed here. Essentially,
the Court will order a child support consequence based upon the calculations
that derive from figures entered into a worksheet (see “Child Support Calculator”). The parties are
strongly encouraged to reach agreement and submit a unified worksheet supporting
an agreed child support amount. Lacking that, the Court will schedule an
evidentiary hearing or trial to consider the parties’ diverse positions and
determine a child support amount.
The parties might have some flexibility in the amount of
child support if they can reach an agreement and properly justify the agreed
figure. However, caution must be exercised so that a child support (modifiable)
concession is not offset by a property distribution (non-modifiable) gain. Bear
in mind that child support is essentially based on gross income (somewhat
adjusted) and does not incorporate consideration of debt or other expenses. As
far as the Court is concerned, child support generally has priority over all
other financial obligations.
Collection of child support is normally through wage
assignment directed to the Support Clearing House. Should the obligor no longer
be working or his/her whereabouts unknown, collection obviously becomes much
Although child support determinations are made at the time
of the divorce proceeding, child support continues to be a lingering issue
because it is modifiable for years after the divorce decree has been entered.
Any modification of child support will require a showing of
substantial and continuing change of circumstances. “Substantial” is measured in
the guidelines as a variance of 15% or more between the child support
consequence under the current circumstances against the existing (original)
The disputes arising in such a modification include how
“continuing” the circumstances are (e.g., temporary layoff vs. permanent loss of
a job) and whether the obligor has control over these circumstances (e.g.,
voluntarily choosing a lower paying job).
Also, child support may continue beyond the child’s age of
majority in the event of a special needs situation, but other financial
considerations might also apply (e.g., availability of Social Security
With respect to income taxation, child support payments
cannot be deducted by the paying parent, nor is it included in the taxable
income for the receiving parent. In contrast, spousal maintenance payments are
deductible and taxable, a fact that sometimes leads to negotiations as to
whether one parent’s payments to the other is to be classified as child support
or spousal maintenance.
Other income tax considerations include deductibility of
daycare expenses (and a correlative credit) and claiming children as dependent
exemptions. Daycare costs are deductible from ordinary income for income tax
purposes, and the child support worksheet contains an entry for the credit.
The ability to claim children as dependent exemptions is
governed by federal law. IRS regulations allow only one parent at a time to
claim the dependency exemption for a child. Those regulations identify the
custodial parent (who has the children for the majority of the year) as the
qualifying parent to get the exemption. However, the custodial parent can sign a
declaration allowing the noncustodial parent to take the exemption (sometimes
ordered by the Court). Generally, where there is equivalent physical custody,
the Court and/or the parties generally allocate the dependency exemption on a
pro rata basis, depending on the income ratio.
Unlike other, less defined issues (e.g., spousal
maintenance, allocation of assets and debt, etc.) that must be resolved in a
divorce, determining the child support obligation is a relatively objective
Nevertheless, like virtually all points of controversy in a
divorce, the parties are generally better off by agreeing to their respective
shares of the calculated child support obligation (in ways that truly reflect
their situations) than by forcing the court to make a more arbitrary