Combined Child Support Worksheets Inflated Father’s Obligation

Combined Child Support Worksheets Inflated Father’s Obligation

In this post-divorce child support modification case involving an unusual parenting arrangement, combining two separate child support worksheets for three children was not contemplated by the Arizona Child Support Guidelines and resulted in an inflated obligation to the Father.

Justin T. Mitton and Candice H. Mitton

Father Petitioned for Child Support Modification

The parents were divorced in 2013. In the divorce decree, both had equal parenting time of their three children – a daughter and two younger twin boys. The Father was ordered to pay child support.

In 2015, Father petitioned to modify child support for changed circumstances. The oldest daughter was living with her Mother full time, while both parents still had equal parenting time with the boys.

The Mother provided two child support worksheets, one for the 17-year-old daughter and one for the two 10-year-old boys. Father objected to Mother’s two worksheets as overstating his child support obligation. The trial court added Mother’s two worksheets together to calculate Father’s obligation for all three children and modified the support order accordingly. Father appealed.

Calculations Under Arizona Child Support Guidelines

The issue on appeal revolved around whether combining two separate child support worksheets to calculate monthly payments was consistent with the Arizona Child Support Guidelines. Father argued it was not consistent and resulted in an award that far exceeded what the Guidelines contemplated; that the result was a “clearly disproportionate increase” in his payments; and that Mother’s method ignored the Guidelines accounting for “some expenses associated with supporting a single child (such as providing housing) do not increase in equal proportion to the number of children in a family.”

Mother argued the trial court did not err because an example in the Guidelines uses separate worksheets and treats each child as an only child. ARS § 25-320 Appendix § 16 “Multiple Children, Divided Custody.” The Court of Appeals rejected Mother’s argument, holding that §16 of the Guidelines does not apply because §16 assumes each parent has sole custody of at least one child, which was not the case at bar.

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How to Calculate Child Support with Unusual Parenting Arrangements

There was no Arizona precedent on how to calculate child support when parties share parenting time equally regarding at least one child and one child lives with a parent full time, an unusual parenting arrangement. In its analysis, the appeals court looked for guidance from three jurisdictions that, like Arizona, use the income shares model for child support calculations and which reviewed the use of separate child support worksheets under similar circumstances.

In a 2010 Indiana case, two separate child support worksheets treating each child as an only child were used for child support calculations where the Father had no overnight parenting with one child and significant overnight parenting time with the other child. The trial court was reversed on appeal because the two-worksheet calculation method erroneously inflated Father’s child support obligation. In re Marriage of Blanford, 937 NE 356 (Ind. Ct. App. 2010).

In a 2011 Colorado case, the Father had differing visitation schedules with each child. The trial court added separate child support worksheets to calculate the total obligation. Reversed on appeal, the trial court’s method was held to be “contrary to the guidelines and schedule, which provide for incremental increase in support for each additional child…” The case was remanded to credit Father for overnight visits with one of the two children. In re Marriage of Wells, 252 P3d 1212 (Colo. Ct. App. 2011).

In a 2006 Maine case, there were three children with similar circumstances to the Mittons’ case. The daughter lived full time with the mother, while the two sons split their time equally with both parents. The trial court added two separate worksheets together. Reversed on appeal, the trial court’s calculation method was “incorrect because it overstated the costs and resulting obligations of parenting the children.” Lawrence v. Webber, 894 A2d 480 (2006).

In the instant case, the Arizona Court of Appeals held for the Father, vacating the trial court’s order and remanding the case with instructions. The Guidelines recognize that adding each child to a household increases costs incrementally, but not by an equal amount. Treating one of three children as an only child and then adding costs of a two-child household “results in an inflated child support obligation.”

On remand, the trial court was instructed to do the following:

1. Treat all children as one household and prepare one child support worksheet.
2. In adjustment for cost associated with the total annual amount of parenting time, the court must “first determine the total amount of parenting time indicated in a court order or parenting plan or by expectation or historical practice of the parents” for each child. ARS § 25-320, Appendix 11.
3. Add total parenting time days for each parent and all children. Divide the total by the number of children to yield “an average annual amount of parenting time days for use in determining child support under the Guidelines.”
4. Thereafter, the court has discretion to deviate from the Guidelines, provided it makes sufficient findings considering the best interests of the child. ARS § 25-320, Appendix 20.

Oral argument can be seen here.

Mitton v. Mitton, 1 CA-CV 15-0769 FC (Ariz. Ct. App. April 11, 2017)

For precise language, read the court’s original opinion. Legal citations omitted.

To learn more about child support modification, visit our discussion about modifying the terms of your divorce orders.