Written by Jonathan Breeden
Caring for a child is not something that ends after divorce or the dissolution of a relationship. Most parents wish to remain active in a child’s life, even if they do not have primary physical custody. That being said, many divorcing or separated parents worry about child support payments. No one wants to be saddled with the entire financial burden of raising a child. In order to ensure both parents are financially responsible for the care of the child, North Carolina uses guidelines when awarding child support to the custodial parent, relative or anyone with whom a minor child, whose parent or parents owe a duty of support, may be residing. These guidelines are meant to avoid inconsistencies in child support amounts and to share costs between parents.
Child support is intended for the sole benefit of the child or children. If child support is ordered during divorce proceedings, the court will issue a separate alimony or post-separation support order for the care of an ex-spouse, if appropriate. In addition, the parents can reach their own agreement regarding child support; this may also occur during divorce negotiations. The guidelines will only apply in situations in which the parents are unable to reach an agreement on their own. Because the payments are only for the benefit of any children, they are not tax deductible to the payor, and the parent receiving child support does not have to declare it as income when filing taxes.
The guidelines attempt to take into account all sources of income from both parents, including salary, self-employment income and investment income. The guidelines are used for all but high-income parents (those with a combined income of more than $300,000 per year) and awards given by the court using the formula are presumed to be reasonable by higher courts. The payment amount is based on the gross income of both parents and the number of children. Amounts will also vary depending on whether one parent has sole full physical custody, if custody is shared jointly or if the parents split custody. The guidelines specifically cover any parent who earns more than $999 per month. Even for parents earning less than this, the guidelines mandate a minimum child support payment of $50 per month.
The guidelines were created using data from the Center for Policy Research on the costs of raising children. Factored into the support order are child care costs for working parents or parents seeking employment. The cost of health insurance, including dental insurance, can also be factored into the child support order.
It is possible for a court to deviate from the amount recommended in the guidelines. However, the court can only do this if the recommended payments would not meet, or would exceed, the reasonable needs of the child. If the court deviates from the guidelines, it must write down the amount recommended by the guidelines, state the reasonable needs of the child and the reason the recommended amount is inappropriate. For high-income parents or for situations in which the court feels deviating from the guidelines is in the best interests of the child, the court will consider:
Modifying child support agreements is possible when one party can show a substantial change in circumstances that would lead to an amount owed increasing or decreasing by 15 percent or when both parties to the agreement approve of a change. By default, a child support order may be reviewed every three years whether there has been a substantial change in circumstances or not. A significant change in circumstances could include job loss, change in the health of either parent or a child, or having another child.
A parent either giving or receiving child support can proactively ask for a modification if a significant life change has occurred by petitioning the court.
The guidelines can also be applied retroactively. If one parent does not pay support for a period of time before a child support order is entered or paternity is contested, a court may award payments for past years when a DNA test conclusively proves paternity or the court finds that one parent had a duty to pay support and did not pay any support. Retroactive child support can go back up to three years. The court will base the amount from when the child support is sought to the ultimate issuing of the order. However, the court will also look to the fair share the non-custodial parent paid up to the support order. If the non-custodial parent can show support, the amount ordered retroactively may be lowered.
While the guidelines promote equal financial responsibility and consistency in child support orders, complicating factors can make obtaining the help of an experienced family law attorney essential when seeking, contesting or modifying child support payments.