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-based lawyers understand the complexities of the Guidelines and can make sense of your situation.
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:
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.
Seven assertions predicate the use of the Guidelines in every child support case. These assertions are basic premises requiring that:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 lawyer.
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.