The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has issued new Child Support Guidelines effective October 4, 2021. These Guidelines, replacing the formula of 2018, introduce significant changes to the calculation of child support. Parents who have been negotiating support terms based on the 2018 Guidelines may, in effect, have to return to the “drawing board” to revisit the impact of the revised formula on their pending agreement. For couples whose agreements include terms for child support and alimony, increases in child support will necessitate revisiting the calculation of family support with a fresh view to the interdependence of spousal and child support. Clearly couples, whose agreements are based on child support awards, will need to analyze the key elements of the formula that will affect them in the future as well as in the present.
Change is always unsettling, even when welcomed. In general, child support will be higher on October 4, 2021 than it was on October 3, 2021. The Guidelines will be praised as a fresh and comprehensive appraisal of the economic changes affecting families in the Commonwealth, recognition of the support needs of children in separated and divorced families, as well as intact homes. The objective of the Guideline Task Force was to fashion a formula for the financial support of children that was both efficient in its implementation as it was equitable to the population it serviced. Time will tell if these goals have been achieved.
The new Guidelines have enacted five major changes to the 2018 formula:
A significant change to the Guidelines, which resulted in a decrease in child support, pertains to low- income parents who have a child support obligation. Whereas prior to the change, the minimum child support order was $25 per week, it has been reduced to $12 per week for payor parents with an income of $210 per week or less and to $20 per week for parents with incomes of up to $249 per week. For incomes in excess of $249 per week, the regular formula will apply.
The new Guidelines have significantly increased the income ceiling used in the computation of child support. Since 2009, the court imposed a maximum income level of $250,000 for the calculation of support based on the combined incomes of the parents. Considering economic changes during this twelve-year period, the Task Force concluded that increases in family income and costs of living justified raising the income ceiling to $400,000. This change will impact families whose combined incomes exceed $250,000. The actual dollar impact on the amount of the payor’s child support obligation is naturally dependent on each parent’ proportionate share of their combined income.Not to be overlooked, however, was (and is) the Court’s ability, to order the payor parent to pay additional child support, over and above that imposed by the income ceiling. As such support based on the $250,000 ceiling was referred to as the presumptive minimum support. With the raised income ceiling, the Task Force has cautioned that additional income, exceeding $400,000, if assessed, should be calculated at less than the ten percent marginal percentage applied to income up to $400,000. The ten percent cap raises the question of whether divorce negotiations, prior to the new Guidelines, might well have resulted in the application of percentages exceeding the ten percent level.
Alternatively, it is worth noting, that especially for couples that mediate their separation or divorce, higher child support orders may be fashioned in the interest of equity and fairness. Or the parents may agree to use income over the ceiling for other support purposes, such as for an alimony order and /or for payment of child-related expenses, including postsecondary education and the like.
The new Guidelines have increased support percentages applied to the calculation of child support in families with more than one child, as followsFor one child: 1.00 (no change) For two children: 1.40 (was 1.25%)(40% increase) For three children: 1.68 (was 1.38%)(20% increase) For four children: 1.85 (was 1.45%)(10% increase) For five children: 1.94%(was 1.48%)(5% increase)
For families with more than one child, support orders will be increased and, in some cases, child support will be significantly higher than under the 2018 Guidelines. In one-child families, 2021 Guideline support has not been impacted unless the family’s combined incomes exceed $250,000 or due to high childcare costs.
The Task Force paid much attention to the treatment of childcare costs in the context of the Guidelines formula. Most significantly the Task Force eliminated the fifteen percent cap on the credit given to the parent or parents paying for childcare costs. In its place the new formula credited each parent’s payment for childcare costs in proportion to the parent’s percentage share of combined income up to $355 per week per child. Given that childcare costs will be proportionately shared in the formula, there is no longer a deduction taken from the payor parent’s (or parents’) income. This change will materially and often appreciably increase the amount of child support in families where the recipient parent pays for childcare services and decrease child support in families where the payor pays for childcare services. Given that many families are burdened with high childcare costs, the Task Force expressed concern that in some families the parent paying child support would be faced with an unsustainable burden in fulfilling his/her child support obligation. As a result the Task Force recommended adding “a red flag at the bottom of the guidelines worksheet to highlight instances where the guidelines amount is forty percent or more of a payor’s available income and possibly a substantial hardship, in some cases justifying a deviation from the guidelines.” This cautionary note and implementation of a red flag warning, if enforced, provides a cap on payors’ obligation.
Health insurance costs will continue to be deducted from each parent’s available income. However, the formula has eliminated crediting of said payment in the worksheet. For families and practitioners working together to fashion and review the Commonwealth’s recommended support orders, they will have to wait until the State issues the calculating version of the Guidelines. Yet, the Guidelines do not in reality stand alone. Separating and divorcing families have to consider all aspects of support—child support, spousal support, where applicable, out-of pocket child-related expenses in addition to childcare services, health insurance and uninsured health expenses, and, of course, educational services in the present and in the future. Indeed, the entire settlement, including the division of assets, plays a role in analyzing each family’s needs and ability to finance their needs. The sooner the State moves forward on issuing the calculating formula will we be able to address the larger picture in the context of changes enacted by the revised Guidelines.