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Calculating Child Support and Alimony

Who decides how much child support I pay?

The parents may come to an agreement as to the amount of child support, but the judge has the “last word” as to whether that agreement is fair and will be implemented. When making that decision, the judge (and thus the parties) must consult the state’s child support guidelines.

What are child support guidelines?

Child support guidelines are rules as to how child support is figured in any case, based on the parties’ incomes and certain defined expenses. The judge can “deviate” from the guidelines in certain cases.

How will I know if the guidelines apply to my case?

The child support guidelines always apply; the real question is whether the judge should deviate given the special circumstances of the case. Reasons for deviation include the amount of visitation, an agreement of the parties, and certain defined extraordinary expenses.

If I give up visitation rights, can I stop paying support?

No. A parent always has a duty to support a child, even if the parent gives up visitation rights.

The kids don’t want to see me. Can I stop paying support?

Generally, again, no. A parent always has a duty to support a child. In certain states, though, New York for example, a refusal of the child to visit a parent can be grounds for some relief relating to the child support obligation.

The kids are with me for the summer. Can I stop paying for those months?

No, unless the child support guidelines and the order specifically allows for an abatement of the child support obligation when there is extended parenting time. Such abatements are allowed, for example, in Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Utah.

Can I make the other parent pay for college?

The duty of parents to pay for college is very state specific. Right now, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws providing that divorced or never-married parents must contribute to their children’s college costs. Parents can always, of course, agree to provide college support.

Are extracurricular activities covered by child support guidelines?

The child support guidelines presume that a parent will pay certain amounts for extracurricular activities. When those expenses are “extraordinary,” though, a parent can request a deviation from the child support guidelines to account for those costs.

When will child support end?

Generally, child support ends at age eighteen, or, if the child is still in high school when he or she turns eighteen, then age nineteen or graduation from high school, whichever comes first. A few states (New York and Massachusetts, most notably), extend the support obligation to age twenty-one. If the child is disabled, though, child support can extend well beyond this limit

Who will pay for private schools or the bar mitzvah or religious studies?

A court can order parents to share the cost (or order one parent to bear the cost, if that’s appropriate) of private schools if the parents agree or if the court determines that such schooling is necessary for the child. If parents can’t agree on religious studies costs, the court can also order the parents to pay if it determines that such instruction is in the best interests of the child.

What is alimony?

Alimony is a payment made to support a former spouse after divorce or separation. There are many different types of alimony; alimony can be rehabilitative, temporary, or permanent, or take other forms.

Is “alimony” the same as “maintenance”?

Yes, “maintenance” and “spousal support” are different terms for what we call “alimony.” “Family maintenance,” though, is alimony and child support combined.

How long will I pay alimony?

No statute defines how long a person pays alimony. An order for alimony almost always terminates upon specific, defined events, such as the remarriage or death of the recipient. The court and the parties can define other terminating events, given the particular facts of the case.

Do I qualify for alimony?

The states vary widely with respect to what would make a person eligible for alimony, and reference to state law is a must. Generally, if a spouse cannot afford to support him- or herself at the marital standard of living, a claim can be made for alimony. A spouse receiving alimony, however, has a duty to try to become self-supporting, though exceptions can be made.

Is alimony dischargeable in bankruptcy?

The bankruptcy code provides that certain debts are dischargeable, which means that, in bankruptcy proceedings, the debtor can be released from an obligation to pay. Alimony is one such debt. Other dischargeable debts include student loans (after a showing of undue hardship), child support, debts for willful and malicious injury to a person or property, debts for death or personal injury caused by operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated, and debts from fraud, embezzlement, or larceny.

How much will I pay?

While some states have alimony guidelines that provide guidance as to how much a payor should provide in alimony based on the incomes of the parties, most states do not have such guidelines. Alimony is therefore determined by an assessment of the reasonable needs of the recipient balanced by the ability of the payor to pay, with particular attention to the lifestyle of the parties during the marriage.

How do I enforce alimony payments?

Alimony is usually enforced by a contempt citation against the nonpaying party. Alimony can also be enforced by a qualified domestic relations order against a pension, by liens against property, and by a wage-withholding order.

Can the amount of alimony be changed?

Alimony is usually modifiable upon a showing of a significant change in circumstances. Parties can agree, though, to nonmodifiable alimony.

Can payments be reduced if my ex (the payor) remarries or has more children?

Usually, a payor’s remarriage and/or new children is not a reason to modify alimony. The rationale is that the payor’s obligation to pay alimony is preexisting, and he or she should not make the recipient bear the burden of the payor’s life choice.

Can payments be reduced if I (the recipient) remarry?

By law, alimony terminates on the remarriage of the recipient. Most states also provide that alimony will terminate or be modified when the recipient lives with another person in a marriage-like relationship.

What happens if the payor dies?

Unless the judgment provides otherwise, alimony terminates on the death of the payor. The parties can agree to make up for the resulting shortfall by imposing the obligation on the payor’s estate or providing some kind of insurance for the recipient on the death of the payor.

What happens if the recipient dies?

Unless the judgment provides otherwise, alimony terminates on the death of the payee. Obviously, the payee has no more need for alimony/support once he or she is deceased, and it is not transferable to children or others unless the alimony terms specifically address this possibility.

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Laura W. Morgan

Family Law Consulting

Charlottesville, VA