Child Support Basics

In every child custody case, there will a determination of child support. Every state has adopted guidelines setting automatic rates of child support based on certain criteria related to family income and the number of children in the household. To get an idea of what is involved in establishing a monthly amount, we look squarely to the Arizona Child Support Guidelines.

Although adjustments may be made to the parent’s respective support obligation, the family court judges are not quick to deviate from the results of the guidelines. Understanding how the guidelines calculate support will help parents anticipate their financial obligations.

Purposes of the Guidelines

The guidelines serve four very important purposes, as follows:

  1. To establish a standard of support for children consistent with [the] reasonable needs of children and the ability of parents to pay.
  2. To make child support orders consistent for persons in similar circumstances.
  3. To give parents and courts guidance in establishing child support orders and to promote settlements.
  4. To comply with state law… and federal law…

On consistency and predictability. Without the guidelines, child support orders would vary significantly from one family to the next. Unfairness, or the perception of unfairness, is the obvious result of inconsistent support orders. In that regard, the guidelines have substantially improved the uniformity of such orders. And because the guidelines are uniformly applied to every child support matter, they enhance settlement negotiations between parents in family law cases throughout Arizona.

Assertions Under the Guidelines

The guidelines include seven assertions, or premises, that predicate their application to every child support case. These are the premises for the guidelines:

– One. The guidelines apply to all children. It makes no difference for child support purposes whether the parents were married or unmarried when the child was conceived or born. Nor does it matter whether the child is the parents’ natural offspring or is legally adopted — every child is covered under the guidelines.

– Two. Child support is a priority financial obligation. The fact that a parent has other debts is not a consideration in determining his or her share of child support. Even when a parent seeks relief from his or her debts in bankruptcy, the child support obligation is not dischargeable.

– Three. The duration and amount of spousal maintenance, if any is to be awarded, is determined by a family court judge before the parents’ respective child support obligations are established. There is one very important reason for this: spousal support is included in the recipient parent’s gross income for child support purposes.

– Four. Every parent has a legal duty to support his or her natural or adopted child. The financial support of a step-child, however, is voluntary and not mandatory.

– Five. There may be circumstances when the custodial parent is required to pay child support. Hence, there is no absolute rule that the noncustodial parent must pay support to the custodial parent.

– Six. Child support is calculated on a monthly income basis. Adjustments to the support are annualized to achieve a monthly figure. This allows for an equal monthly distribution of the cost item over the course of a year.

– Seven. The basic child support owed is capped when the parents’ combined adjusted gross income reaches $20,000 per month. However, that doesn’t prevent the parents from agreeing to a larger amount than the guidelines require. Additionally, when there are more than six children, the basic child support obligation is capped with the sixth child.

Presumptions Under the Guidelines

In any action involving child support, the amount resulting from application of the guidelines is presumed to be the amount the court shall order. The only exception to that presumption is if the result under the guidelines in a specific case would be unjust or inappropriate. In that event, the court may deviate from the guidelines, either by increasing the amount or by decreasing the amount.

Fewer Trials on Child Support Issues

Because we have guidelines that allow us to calculate a child support amount, a trial on child support issues is seldom necessary. However, there are circumstances that can make child support calculations more difficult, such as determining the gross income from a parent’s business operation or self-employment.

Shared Income Approach

Under our child support guidelines, the total support approximates what the parents would have spent on the child if they were living together as one family. Under this shared income approach, each parent is required to contribute a proportionate share of his and her income. Generally, the non-custodial parent will be ordered by the court to pay a percentage of his or her gross monthly income to the custodial parent in child support.

By application of the guidelines, the amount of support to be paid is calculated accurately after considering many factors, including both parents’ gross incomes, the child’s medical insurance, any extraordinary expenses, work-related daycare expenses, and the number of children residing in the home, among other things. The amount of support resulting from calculations performed under the guidelines is presumptively the correct amount to be ordered by the court in any action to establish or modify child support. The court may deviate from the guidelines’ result, however, when necessary to avoid an inappropriate or unjust result in a particular case.

Cost of Extracurricular Activities

The court may include the cost of extracurricular activities if the child has an identifiable extraordinary ability in a given area, or is gifted. More typically, funding these extracurricular activities will not be court-ordered and will remain an option for the parents. The best way to ensure that these expenses are included in the support order is for the parents to agree to such funding in their separation agreement.

Duration of Support

The court will set a termination date in the child support order. Child support is presumed to terminate on the last day of the month of the youngest child’s 18th birthday, that is, the youngest child covered by the support order. If the court finds that the youngest child is unlikely to finish high school by their 18th birthday, then the support terminates on the last day of the month of anticipated graduation (in May) or on the child’s 19th birthday, whichever happens first.