In this article, a Massachusetts child support attorney explains the Massachusetts child support guidelines. If you are a father paying child support in Massachusetts, it is a good idea to get in touch with a Massachusetts child support lawyer to ensure that you understand what is expected of you and so that you do not get stuck paying more than you can afford.
What is child support in Massachusetts?
Massachusetts child support is money that one parent pays to the other parent. It is meant to be used for basic needs such as shelter, food, clothing, and insured health expenses.
In Massachusetts both parents have a financial duty to support their child. The person who the child primarily resides with and who takes primary care of the child is known as the custodial parent. The parent who lives outside the child’s primary home is known as the noncustodial parent.
In most cases, it is the noncustodial parent who must make child support payments in Massachusetts. Although both parents have a duty to support the child, it is implied that the person with whom the child mainly resides spends their portion of the support directly on the child as they provide the living expenses for the child.
The amount of child support a parent will have to pay in Massachusetts is based on a number of factors that make up the child support guidelines. Parents can always agree to pay more than the amount set out by the guidelines, but very rarely will they be able to pay less.
The judge may also make a ruling on the proper amount of child support if they feel like the number produced by the guideline is not in the best interests of the child or children.
Massachusetts child support calculator
Every four years, the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court issues a new set of child support guidelines. These guidelines are used to calculate what a noncustodial parent should be paying in support. The changes to the guidelines are meant to reflect the changing economic climate, changes to the law and are meant to help clarify how to set child support amounts.
When calculating support, the court will look at the gross income of the parties, the lifestyle the child is accustomed to, health insurance costs, and parties’ ability to pay.
The Massachusetts courts have implemented a formula that is used to determine the amount of support to be paid. Listed below are the major factors that the formula uses to determine a support amount:
- Gross income of the parents;
- Amount, if any, of support paid for a child from a previous relationship;
- Child care costs;
- Health insurance costs;
- Age of the child or children;
- Any other support obligations.
While the formula creates a guideline amount, it is within the judge’s discretion to change that amount if they feel it is in the best interests of the child.
Calculating income for child support in Massachusetts
When calculating income of the parties, the court always uses the gross income of both parties. To calculate the accurate amount of support, the court will look at the weekly gross income of the parties.
In the case of parents who are self-employed, the court may impute more income than what they originally claim. The court will look at things such as under the table income, expense reimbursements, benefits received, and personal use of business property when determining the amount of income attributable to that parent.
The court may also attribute income to a parent if they find that the parent is either unemployed or underemployed and that they are not making all reasonable efforts to earn more than what they are reporting at that time. If the noncustodial parent is unemployed or does not make enough money to pay a child support order they are still under an obligation to pay. The noncustodial parent will still be ordered to pay the minimum support order which as of 2017 is $25 per week.
It is up to the court’s discretion whether it will include income received from a second job and overtime when an initial child support order is issued. The court will look at some of the following factors when determining if it is appropriate to include:
- The history of the income;
- Whether the income will be consistent and available in the future;
- The economic needs of the parties and children;
- Whether overtime is required by the job.
When calculating the correct support any child care expense paid or medical insurance costs that are paid, are given a dollar-for-dollar deduction off the parties’ respective gross incomes. As of 2017, the combined adjustment for child care and health care costs is to be capped at 15% of the child support order.
Whether the noncustodial parent is under a previous child support order for a different child will also be taken into consideration as long as that order is actually being paid. The amount that is being paid for the prior order will be deducted from the party’s total gross income. Any payments being made for past due amounts on a prior order will not be taken off the party’s gross income. Payments that are being made for a different child which are not court ordered but are voluntary may be considered but it will be up to the court to determine whether these payments are reasonable.
If a parent is living with another biological or adopted child, then an amount of support may be deducted from their gross income. While this amount is somewhat hypothetical, the parent paying has the burden to prove that they have a legal obligation to provide support and it is likely that the other parent’s income will be taken into effect. Obligations to support a subsequent child may be used as a defense to a request for an increase in support but will not be a valid reason to request a decrease in a support order.
Massachusetts child support duration
In Massachusetts, a child turning 18 does not automatically terminate a support order. Massachusetts law allows payments for support, maintenance and education for a child over the age of 18 for a variety of reasons.
One reason that a child support obligation may continue past the age of 18 is if the child is still in high school. Massachusetts law treats a child who has turned 18 but is still enrolled in high school as a minor for child support purposes.
Child support may also continue past when the child graduates from high school if the child is still “principally dependent” on one parent. Principally dependent has been determined to mean that the child continues to live with one parent. A child is still determined to be “principally dependent” even if they go away to college, if they return to a parent’s home during school breaks. The “principally dependent” factor is typically applied to children age 18-20.
There is also the possibility that a judge may order child support for a child between the ages of 21-23. Child support obligations for this age range depend on the following factors as stated in the law, “if such child is domiciled in the home of a parent, and is principally dependent upon said parent for maintenance due to the enrollment of such child in an educational program, excluding educational costs beyond an undergraduate degree.”
This essentially means that if a child is enrolled in an undergraduate program full-time then support may continue beyond the age of 20.
If a parent wishes to file a Complaint for Modification seeking to terminate support because a child has reached the age of 18 or older, the court will look at a variety of factors. The main factor that the judge will look at is whether the child is “principally dependent” on a parent. The Child Support Guidelines lay out a number of other factors that the Judge may consider when determining whether support should be terminated:
- The child’s living situation;
- The cost of the child’s education and each parent’s contribution;
- The availability of financial aid for the student;
- The child’s academic status;
- The reasons why the child is still principally dependent;
- The custodial parent’s finances.
If a child support order is entered and it is determined that the child is still principally dependent the order cannot extend past a child’s 23rd birthday.
Massachusetts child support deviation
Parties can deviate from the guideline order amount by paying more if they agree in writing. Very rarely will a court allow the parties to agree to a lesser amount then the guideline. For the court to allow a deviation from the guidelines it must enter specific written findings that provide the following:
- The presumptive amount that is pursuant to the guidelines;
- A finding that the guideline amount would be unjust or inappropriate under the circumstances;
- Specific facts that justify the deviation;
- Show that the deviation is in the child’s best interest.
There are also certain factors that the court will look to when deciding whether a deviation is appropriate. Below is a list of some of those factors:
- Parties agree to the deviation and the court believes it to be fair and reasonable and in the best interests of the child;
- A party or the child have extraordinary mental, physical or developmental needs;
- A parent is providing substantially less than 1/3 of the parenting time;
- A payor is incarcerated and doesn’t have the resources to pay;
- If the guideline order creates a situation where one party is not able to properly support themselves;
- A parent has extraordinary travel expenses related to parenting.
Child support modification in Massachusetts
To change a child support order in Massachusetts a party would need to bring before the court a Complaint for Modification. Some factors that will be considered when deciding whether it is appropriate to modify an existing support order are as follows:
- There is an inconsistency between what is the guideline order and the amount being paid;
- Access to health coverage has become unavailable to a parent;
- Previously ordered health coverage is no longer available or is available at a cost that would cause undue hardship;
- Any other material and substantial change in circumstance.
The term material and substantial change in circumstance is somewhat broad so it is very important to consult an attorney if you think that your child support obligation should be modified.
Child support termination in Massachusetts
Although your child may have reached one of the milestones that allows for a termination of your support order you cannot automatically stop paying. Unless the child has reached the age of 23, the parent paying child support needs an order from the court prior to terminating payments.
Unless your specific court order states that child support automatically terminates upon the child’s 18th birthday or upon graduation from high school, then it is imperative that you get a court order prior to terminating your payments. A parent who unilaterally terminates support upon the child reaching the age of 18 may end up owing money so it is important to talk to an attorney if you think that you qualify for a termination.
The law regarding domestic relations and child support in Massachusetts is often a difficult and confusing concept and the court systems are often difficult to maneuver. This article is only a brief overview of child support laws in Massachusetts and is not meant to take the place of the recommendations of an attorney. It is very important to consult a Massachusetts divorce attorney as each case is different.