What do you know about the laws surrounding child support cases in Arizona? The state has adopted guidelines setting rates based upon criteria related to family income and the number of children in the household. Hiring an experienced lawyer helps you navigate the rules and regulations that have been set.
To understand what is involved in establishing a monthly amount in Arizona and the communities surrounding Phoenix, we look squarely to the Arizona Child Support Guidelines. When you need help, our Phoenix family lawyers understand the complexities of the Guidelines and can make sense of your situation.
The Importance of Child Support
Child support has a significant impact on the lives of many children and families. In cases of divorce or separation, a child should not suffer financially due to their parents’ inability to cohabitate. But, sadly, this is often the case. The structure and enforcement of child support laws in Arizona aim to ensure that children receive the financial support needed to maintain a stable and healthy lifestyle from both parents.
When one parent provides financial support, it eases the burden on the other parent, who is responsible for the majority of the child’s care. This support is intended to cover expenses such as living costs, education, and medical expenses.
Tips for Navigating Child Support in Arizona
- Be prepared: Gather all relevant financial documents, including income statements, tax returns, and receipts for childcare, healthcare, and education expenses. This information will be crucial in calculating child support obligations.
- Stay engaged: Attend all court hearings and remain proactive throughout the process. Your involvement is essential to ensuring that your child support agreement is fair and in the best interest of your child.
- Consult an attorney: An experienced family law attorney can provide invaluable guidance and representation, helping you navigate the complexities of Arizona’s child support guidelines.
- Communicate openly: Maintaining open communication with the other parent can go a long way in facilitating a positive co-parenting relationship and achieving a fair and efficient child support resolution.
Why You Need a Lawyer
While it may be tempting to try and handle child support matters on your own, there are several reasons why hiring a lawyer is in your best interest. Here are some of the primary reasons why you need a lawyer for child support in Arizona:
- Knowledge of the Law: An experienced family law attorney will fully understand the legal process regarding child support in Arizona. They will be able to navigate the complex guidelines and use their knowledge of the law to ensure that your child receives a fair and appropriate amount of support.
- Negotiation Skills: A lawyer can use negotiation skills to help you reach a favorable agreement with the other parent regarding child support. They can help you avoid potential pitfalls and contentious disputes that can arise during negotiations.
- Experience with the Court System: Navigating the court system can be intimidating, especially if you are unfamiliar with the required documentation, procedures, and hearings. A lawyer will know how to handle all aspects of your case, whether it be filling out forms, meeting deadlines, or presenting evidence in court on your behalf.
- Communication with the Other Party: Dealing with the other parent can be uncomfortable or emotionally charged, especially when discussing financial matters related to your child. A lawyer can act as a buffer, communicating with the other party on your behalf and ensuring that discussions remain focused on the pertinent issues.
- Illustrating Unique Circumstances: Every family is different, and sometimes, the standard guidelines for child support may not cover unique situations. A lawyer can help present your family’s specific circumstances to the court to ensure that the final support order is fair and adequately addresses your child’s needs.
Child Support Guidelines
Under these state-set Guidelines, support payments are in an amount calculated to meet the reasonable needs of the child for health, education, and maintenance. Although adjustments may be made to a parent’s support obligation, family law judges are not quick to deviate from the Guidelines’ results. Learning how the Guidelines calculate amounts helps both parents anticipate their financial obligations. Here’s how.
Arizona’s Guidelines are designed to serve four distinct purposes:
- To establish a standard of support for children consistent with the reasonable needs of children and the ability of parents to pay.
- To make child support orders consistent for persons in similar circumstances.
- To give parents and courts guidance in establishing child support orders and to promote settlements.
- To comply with state law (ARS § 25-320) and federal law (42 USC § 651 et seq., 45 CFR § 302.56) and any amendments thereto.
The Guidelines provide consistency and predictability. Without these standards, orders would vary significantly from one family to the next. Unfairness (and perceived unfairness) is an obvious consequence of inconsistent orders, especially when family circumstances are decidedly alike. In this regard, standards have substantially improved the uniformity of support orders. And because the Guidelines are uniformly applied to every case, they also enhance settlement negotiations between parents.
Key Assertions in Arizona’s Guidelines
Seven assertions predicate the use of the Guidelines in every child support case. These assertions are basic premises requiring that:
- The Guidelines apply to all children. Support is ordered whether parents were married or unmarried when their child was conceived or born. Every child is covered under the Guidelines, both the natural offspring and legally adopted children of the parties.
- Child support is a priority financial obligation. Even when the parent obtains debt relief in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, obligations are nondischargeable. Generally, that a parent has unrelated debts should not result in deviation from the Guidelines’ amount.
- Child support is separate from spousal maintenance. The court will determine the duration and amount of spousal maintenance before establishing each parent’s obligation.
- Each parent has a legal duty to support a natural or adopted child. By contrast, providing financial support for a step-child is purely voluntary.
- Sometimes the custodial parent pays child support. There may be circumstances requiring the Primary Residential Parent (PRP) with whom the child resides most of the time (also called the custodial parent) to pay child support. There is no absolute rule requiring the noncustodial parent to pay monthly support.
- Child support is calculated on a monthly basis. Adjustments are annualized to achieve a uniform monthly amount. This is what the child depends upon. Parents prepare and plan for a consistent monthly distribution of the cost item over the course of a year without worries about fluctuating incomes or seasonal work schedules.
- Child support is not unlimited. The Basic Child Support Obligation (BCSO) is capped at parents’ combined adjusted gross income of $20,000 per month. Parents with more than six children have their BCSO capped with the sixth child. In either circumstance, parents are always free to agree on a larger support amount than is mandated by the Guidelines.
Child Support Trial
Because we have uniform rules allowing parents, their attorneys, and judges to consistently calculate obligations, trials on these issues are seldom necessary. The Guidelines minimize disputes, helping many parents save on litigation costs. There are circumstances that make calculations more difficult, however, such as determining a parent’s gross income from a professional practice, self-employment, or seasonal work. Talk to an experienced attorney.
Shared Income Approach
In applying the Guidelines, the support amount to be paid is accurately calculated after considering many factors. Whether establishing child support or modifying an existing order, the calculated amount using the Guidelines is presumed to be the correct amount and what the court will order. However, the family law judge has the authority to deviate from the Guidelines’ result when necessary to avoid an inappropriate or unjust result in a particular case.
Under our Arizona Child Support Guidelines, the total support amount approximates what parents would have spent on their child if they were still living together as one family. The shared income approach has each parent contributing a proportionate share of his and her income. The court typically orders the noncustodial parent to pay a percentage of his or her gross monthly income to the custodial parent, or PRP.
Paying for Extracurricular Activities
Who pays for extracurricular activities? What about after-school programs and weekend sports? How should those expenses be managed? Will parents share the cost of new team uniforms or tennis equipment? If the child has an extraordinary ability – is gifted or a prodigy – then the court may include the cost of extracurricular activities to enhance and expand those abilities.
More often than not, though, how the child’s extracurricular activities are funded will be for parents to settle. Absent a child’s identified giftedness, the court is not likely to order additional support. What is the best way to ensure expenses for various extra-curricular activities are included in the support order? Parents may agree to fund these expenses after negotiating with their attorneys’ assistance and including terms in their separation agreement. Mediating this issue along with other custody matters often helps parents arrive at an agreed solution without the need for a trial.
Duration of Child Support
When does child support stop? How do parents know when monthly supports payments will terminate? As a parent, you need to know how long it will last. The court sets the date of termination in the order itself. Here’s how this works.
Support is presumed to terminate on the last day of the month of the child’s 18th birthday. (If the order covers more than one child, then the presumptive termination date is tied to the birthday of the youngest child in the order. As older children age out of the order, consider a modification.)
A child emancipates at age 18. If the child is unlikely to finish high school by age 18, then support should continue until the child graduates from high school or until his or her 19th birthday arrives, whichever occurs first.
As a parent, you need to know that support does not automatically stop when your child emancipates. To end the legal obligation to continuing paying, the parent must petition the court to terminate its support order. This is an important step, so do not skip over it.
At the end of the day, your duty is about providing for your child’s basic needs. Whatever personal differences might exist between divorcing or separating parents, these should never affect the financial amounts the child has a right to.
Support may end when your child turns 18, the age of majority, or age 19 if still in high school. Support might not terminate until your child graduates from college. If you have a disabled child, then support payments may continue into your child’s adulthood as discussed below.
Child Support for Disabled Adult Children
The court may order payments to continue beyond the age of majority for an adult child with a significant mental or physical disability. Whatever the disability, it must prevent the child from living independently. Take a look at ARS § 25-320(E):
- Even if a child is over the age of majority when a petition is filed or at the time of the final decree, the court may order support to continue past the age of majority if all of the following are true:
- The court has considered the factors prescribed in [the child support guidelines]…
- The child has severe mental or physical disabilities as demonstrated by the fact that the child is unable to live independently and be self-supporting.
- The child’s disability began before the child reached the age of majority.
For this statutory provision to apply, the adult child must have manifested his or her disability during minority – that is, before the age of 18. The court may order support be paid to the adult child directly or, alternatively, to the parent providing needed care to that son or daughter (directly as a caregiver or indirectly to an adult care facility). These matters require serious consideration. When seeking amounts for a disabled adult child who depends upon parental financial assistance, discuss options with your attorney, and make a plan.
CALCULATING APPROPRIATE AMOUNTS
How Much Child Support?
As you know from our previous discussion, total support approximates what parents would have spent on their child if still living together as one family. Under the shared income model, each parent contributes a proportionate share of his and her income. This tends to get more complicated if one or both parents owned a business that was divided in the divorce. Typically, the noncustodial parent is ordered to pay a percentage of gross monthly income to the custodial parent for support. But there are several statutory factors involved in the process.
Arizona Child Support Factors
The amount to be paid is calculated by considering many factors, including the parents’ gross incomes, the child’s necessary expenses, extraordinary medical expenses, work-related daycare costs, and number of children residing in the home, among other things. Key factors in establishing or modifying child support are set forth in ARS § 25-320(D), as follows:
- The financial resources and needs of the child.
- The financial resources and needs of the custodial parent.
- The standard of living the child would have enjoyed if the child lived in an intact home with both parents to the extent it is economically feasible considering the resources of each parent and each parent’s need to maintain a home and to provide support for the child when the child is with that parent.
- The physical and emotional condition of the child, and the child’s educational needs.
- The financial resources and needs of the noncustodial parent.
- The medical support plan for the child. The plan should include the child’s medical support needs, the availability of medical insurance or services provided by the Arizona health care cost containment system and whether a cash medical support order is necessary.
- Excessive or abnormal expenditures, destruction, concealment or fraudulent disposition of community, joint tenancy and other property held in common.
- The duration of parenting time and related expenses.
Gross Income in Child Support Calculations
Parental child support obligations are determined in great part by the parties’ respective incomes. In their statements of gross income, parents must include their interests in stock options, investments, bank accounts, retirement accounts, and anything else that generates income. (Any of these assets may have been divided as part of the community property settlement as well.) Gross income is more than simply wages. Generally, it includes income from any and every possible source.
Parents are sometimes confused by what to include as income for purposes of calculating support obligations. One example is ownership of stock options. Stock options are an option to purchase a specific number of shares in the future, but at today’s price. A corporate employer may bestow stock options on a salaried executive. Employees may give up pay increases or other benefits and incentives in exchange for stock options in the company they work for. Options usually have restrictions, such as a minimum period of employment before the option vests. The stock vests on the date the option is exercised by the employee-holder. If both continuing and recurring, a parent’s profits on exercised options should be listed as income.
If you are unsure about whether you or the other parent’s financial resource amounts to “income” for calculating support purposes, then discuss these concerns with your family law attorney. The definition of gross income in the Guidelines is intended to be broadly and flexibly interpreted and is very inclusive. Income may include capital gains, veterans’ benefits, prizes and awards, lottery and gambling winnings, insurance and workers’ compensation benefits, pensions and annuities, a much more. A good place to begin looking for income to include in support calculations is the spouse’s tax returns for the previous two years.
CHILD SUPPORT ENFORCEMENT AND CONTEMPT PROCEEDINGS
All parents must meet their court-ordered obligations. Those who do not pay support, pay sporadically or pay less than ordered may be subject to contempt proceedings, fines, and jail time. If you have child support questions about enforcing an order or need help defending a contempt action, contact our lawyers at Stewart Law Group. An experienced family law attorney can review your situation and explain your rights.
Child Support Arrears
Be mindful, there is no statute of limitations on the collection of arrears. The child may already be an adult when the parent petitions to collect arrearages from the payor. Once a judgment is entered, interest accrues at the hefty rate of ten percent (10%) per year. These judgments do not expire either. They must be paid in full with interest or will continue in effect. The custodial parent (as PRP) should not delay pursuing collection of child support arrears, which could prove to be a risky strategy. Of course, the parent who becomes a judgment debtor should do everything possible to pay the judgment off.
Enforcing Child Support Orders
Contempt proceedings are the most common enforcement actions taken against parents who fail to pay support. The key to holding a parent in contempt is the court’s finding that he or she had the ability to pay, yet willfully failed to do so. A parent who genuinely does not have the ability to pay support as ordered may have a successful defense in a contempt proceeding.
During contempt proceedings, the defendant is charged with failing to comply with a court order. These proceedings can be civil or criminal. In civil proceedings, the family court can order various relief to the unpaid parent. The parent could stay out of jail on a purge condition, meaning he or she agrees to make a purge payment that covers the arrears in order to end contempt for the court’s order. (See ARS § 25-502.) The parent could be ordered to serve an indefinite period in jail until the support owed is paid, typically in a lump sum. Upon paying those arrears, or back child support, the parent is released from jail.
In criminal contempt proceedings, the parent is sentenced to jail as punishment for failing to comply with the court’s order. In that instance, the parent cannot pay the arrears to shorten the jail sentence.
For many parents in Maricopa County another option is the Accountability Court Program. This court program enforces support arrearages and works toward the long-term goal of improving future parental compliance with child support orders.
Wage Garnishment For Child Support
Parents who owe arrears may be subject to wage garnishment. The court may order an employer to withhold a certain percentage from an employee’s paycheck each pay period to meet their obligations. Additionally, under federal law employers must report the names of new employees to the state’s new-hire directory. The directory is used to help locate parents delinquent in their payments. A national registry also helps locate parents who move out-of-state in search of work. The payor’s tax refund and lottery winnings may be garnished, too.
Enforcing Child Support Orders Across State Lines
State governments and the U.S. government have taken action to punish parents who cross state lines attempting to escape support obligations. States are required to give full faith and credit to valid final court judgments issued by other states, including child support orders.
Parents cannot seek out a new jurisdiction to gain a more favorable award either. Under the Arizona Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (AUIFSA), the state court that issued the order has continuing exclusive jurisdiction over the case. This means the parent seeking to modify the original order or seeking to have the order enforced must petition the court that originally entered it. The AUIFSA provides state courts with so-called long-arm jurisdiction over a parent who moves to another state (California, for example) after orders establishing child support are entered in Arizona.
Lastly, to reduce welfare costs the U.S. government passed legislation criminalizing a parent’s willful failure to pay. Under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act (DPPA), 19 USC § 228, those who failed to pay could face federal penalties, fines, and incarceration.
MODIFYING CHILD SUPPORT ORDERS
Did your child just turn 16? Have your wages increased or decreased? Have you relocated with your child? Child support orders may be modified to meet changing needs in the parents’ or child’s life. Either parent may file a petition requesting a modification. The court then determines whether a significant and material change in circumstances has occurred concerning the child’s needs or parent’s ability to pay. The following circumstances may warrant modification of an order:
- Change in either parent’s income;
- Change in either parent’s parenting time;
- The payor has another child;
- Disability of a parent or child; and
- Extraordinary educational expenses.
Parents cannot act independently to change the amount of ordered support, even if they are both in agreement. In fact, an informal pact between parents to reduce, suspend, or cancel child support is not binding. The parties must petition the court to decide if its order should be changed – up, down or otherwise. What about the parent who is unemployed? A request for modified orders must still be filed, and the sooner the better. Modified orders may relate back to the date the petition was filed, but not earlier. If arrears are likely, then consult a Phoenix divorce attorney.
Family Law Attorneys for Child Support in Phoenix
Stewart Law Group has caring, professional child support lawyers in Phoenix, Scottsdale, Chandler, Glendale, Mesa, Peoria, Tempe and Gilbert. Serving Maricopa County, Pinal County, and all of Arizona, our legal team is committed to providing the highest quality representation to all of our clients. Schedule a confidential consultation with a family law attorney today. Call 602-548-3400 or submit the online contact form on our website. You can also email your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. We will respond quickly and discretely.
Have more questions? Check out our Arizona child support FAQs.
- Do Child Support Guidelines Apply if the Parents Live Together?
- Are You Required To Pay For Your Kid’s Extracurricular Activities?
- Can You Trade Child Support for Parenting Time?