The Child Support Guidelines, which came into effect on May 1, 1997, set out four admirable objectives:
- to promote fairness to children;
- to ease tension and conflict between parents;
- to reduce litigation; and
- to ensure consistent treatment of parties.
When children reside primarily with one parent (more than 60% of the time), the Guidelines are pretty clear-cut and as a result those objectives are more easily met. There are always some exceptions to the rule but, generally, the payor is required to pay child support in accordance with a legislated table based on his or her income and the number of children for whom support is payable.
In a shared parenting situation (the children reside with each parent at least 40% of the time), the Guidelines provide for a three-step process for determining the monthly amount of a child support order. The objectives remain the same but are not as easily met because the analysis is more complicated and the outcome, unfortunately, is much more difficult to predict.
The first step is to consult the tables but, in a shared parenting situation, we have to consider both parents’ obligation to pay “table support”. We determine the set-off amount by subtracting the lower income earning parent’s table support obligation from the higher income earning parent’s table support obligation. This, however, is NOT the end of the analysis. There seems to be a common misconception out there that the set-off amount is the appropriate amount to be paid in all shared-parenting situations.
The second step is to consider the increased costs of shared parenting arrangements. A proper analysis will require each parent to prepare budgets for child-related expenses in order to determine the total child-related budget for both households. As an example of how one Superior Court judge recently considered this step of the analysis, he looked at each party’s budget and then determined what amount of support the recipient spouse would require, in addition to the recipient spouse’s proportionate share of the total budget, to be able to cover the child-related expenses. For example, if the total child-related budget for the children was $4,000.00 per month and the recipient earned 35% of the parties’ combined income, the recipient should be responsible for 35% of the total budget or $1,400.00. If, in reality, the recipient had a child-related budget of $2,000.00, he or she would require an additional $600.00 of support from the payor to cover those expenses.
The third and final step is to consider the conditions, means, needs and other circumstances of the parties and the children. In other words, how does the lifestyle and net worth of the payor compare with the lifestyle and net worth of the recipient?
It is important to remember that, in a shared parenting situation, all three steps must be taken into account when determining the appropriate amount of child support and that the weight of each step will vary according to the particular facts of each case. This results in more uncertainty but acknowledges the overall situation of the parents as well as their respective ability to financially support their children.