Software that automatically calculates child support can be a valuable tool – but you must advise clients that the calculations are not written in stone, and how and why they might change.
By Stephanie L. Tang, Family Lawyer
Child support can be a sensitive topic for many clients. Some clients believe they should not have to pay any money to their soon to-be former spouse, or will ask their lawyers to find ways to pay a smaller amount in monthly support. Software that automatically calculates child support based on specific income inputs and the applicable state’s law can be a valuable tool for family law attorneys.
However, attorneys should advise clients that the software calculations are not written in stone because of the modifiability of child support – and because judges have the option of deviating from the state guidelines.
Three Models of Child Support
There are three primary models of child support codified throughout the United States: the Income Shares Model (the majority approach), the Melson Formula approach, and the Percentage of Income Model. Specifically, 40 states employ the Income Shares Model, including California, Illinois, and New York.
The Income Shares Model is based on the idea that children should receive the same proportion of their parents’ income that they would have received if their parents were still living together.
This model considers the combined incomes of both parents in determining a support obligation.
The Melson Formula approach (used only by three states) is a variation of the Income Shares Model in that it considers both parents’ incomes, but it also considers both the parents’ and the children’s needs.
The Percentage of Income Model only considers a percentage of an obligor parent’s income in determining the child support obligation.
Regardless of the model employed, many states and state agencies have developed online calculators or separate software that attorneys and clients can use to try to estimate their child support obligation.
Using Child Support Software in Divorce
Many attorneys already utilize child support software once the tax returns and paystubs have been exchanged, financial disclosures have been completed, and the parties have started settlement negotiations. However, this software can also prove beneficial to clients in the initial intake process to illustrate possible scenarios for structuring child support.
When potential clients come into your office, they are often anxious and unsure about what the divorce process looks like. While most attorneys are accustomed to explaining what income sources, deductions, or other considerations a judge may take into account, seeing the inputs on the screen helps visual learners to understand the explanation. This way, they can prepare and focus on the relevant information in moving forward. Showing your new client calculations using the software will help to familiarize them with the inputs – and the information you will need for those inputs – before the case even begins.
Another potential use for the software is to illustrate the effects of different inputs on the calculated amount of child support. For example, a client’s spouse may have significantly variable income from month to month because of fluctuating overtime hours; showing the client examples of how those fluctuating hours could affect support makes the concept much easier for the client to grasp. You could simply tell your client that child support could fluctuate depending on this variation in income, but showing the potential effects as well is a much better way to make your point.
If you have clients with older children who may soon emancipate, many programs also allow for calculation of child support “step-downs” and carry these step-downs over to projected budget reports for the parties. This helps parties understand not only what their projected cash flow will look like in the immediate future, but also once their oldest child emancipates.
Risks of Relying on Support Software
When using child support calculation software, attorneys should be wary of the potential effects that seeing a certain number can have on a client. It is important to discuss the possibility of a judge deviating from the statute and the potential modifiability of any child support award.
Although most states have a presumption that judges should apply the guidelines, there are factors that could persuade a judge to deviate from them, including extraordinary out-of-pocket medical expenses due to a child’s illness, or additional expenses due to a child’s developmental or physical needs.
Many software programs can extrapolate child support if parents have a combined income above what is provided in the relevant income tables, but judges may still choose to deviate from that extrapolated amount and focus on other factors – such as the demonstrated needs of the children.
In the vast majority of states, child support is always modifiable as long as a substantial change of circumstances has occurred. You need to explain that even if a judge sets a child support award based on one spouse earning, say, $250,000 under that state’s statute, if that spouse is fired, he or she could petition the court for a modification downward. Consider running scenarios with different inputs to educate your client as to potential changes to support due to a change of circumstances in addition to just indicating a potential range. This can be particularly useful in cases where a client/client’s spouse is self-employed or has large fluctuations in their income: for example, in cases where their income is commission-based or if they have variable hours.
Many family law attorneys see child support calculation software as indispensable when negotiating settlement proposals and developing arguments for child support hearings. It can also be a great tool for attorneys during the initial intake process and to illustrate the impact of certain events on a parent’s child support obligation. However, attorneys must keep in mind that even when using the software generated spreadsheets, they still need to educate clients as to potential deviations and modifiability of support. Armed with these considerations, child support software can be a powerful tool in the attorney’s belt.
Stephanie L. Tang is a family law attorney and mediator at Kogut & Wilson, L.L.C. She has been selected as an Emerging Lawyer in Family Law by Leading Lawyers, as well as a Rising Star in Family Law by Super Lawyers. www.kogutwilson.com
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