Since 1987 when Massachusetts introduced Interim Child Support Guidelines, the State has reviewed and revised the formula in approximately four-year intervals with the principle objective of maintaining the standard of living of children whose parents are separated or divorced. Payments, from one parent to the other, are supposed to reflect each parent’s financial ability to finance the child’s needs. In concept, child support payments are intended to cover each child’s basic need for shelter, food, clothing, health care, and the like in keeping with the family’s standard of living. Therefore the combined income of the family sets the bar for determining the amount of the total child support, with each parent’s obligation based on individual income, amount of children, and the percentage of time spent in each parent’s home. If the child spends equal time with each parent and the parents have equivalent income, all else being equal, there may be no actual exchange of funds. In all probability, however, there will be an agreement as to how specific out-of-pocket child-related expenses will be financed.
Yet, we all know that children require more than food, clothing, and shelter. We are well aware that there are extracurricular and even extraordinary costs associated with raising a child in the twenty-first century. Indeed the estimated average cost to raise a child to age 17 is $234,000 and that is before they enter college, where the figures really soar.
Let’s take a more introspective look at the expenses funded by parents in addition to the payment of moneys, known as child support payments. The following listing presents a broad stroke view of some of the major categories:
Activities (e.g., sports), including fees, uniforms, equipment, transportation where required
Lessons (e.g., music, art) including materials, equipment
Noninsured medical, dental, and vision expenses including deductibles, copayments, prescriptions, not to mention extraordinary expenditures such as braces
Educational services (pre-college) (e.g., enrichment services, tutoring, special language schools [e.g., Chinese School, Greek School])
Class trips and other trips without a parent
Childcare services for parents to work (e.g., babysitters, daycare, preschool, after school)
Camp and scheduled summer activities
Electronic equipment such as iPads, computers, cellphones
Birthday parties for children and their friends
Gifts for friends, teachers, and the like
Museum and club membership
Special celebrations (graduations, weddings)
Automobile insurance for a child to drive and expenses associated with learning to drive and/or driving (e.g., drivers’ education)
Expenditures labeled as shared expenses most often require the pre-approval of both parents. It would be unlikely that either parent would have the authorization to sign a child up for, say, a $12,000 sleep away camp, without first consulting with, and receiving the consent of the other parent, unless perhaps the parent was willing to pay the entire tab without a contribution from the other parent. Often parents agree to keep a joint account into which each parent contributes his or her share of the monthly approximation for each semester’s or the year’s annual outlay. As such the parents meet before each school semester, discuss that semester’s shared activities/expenses, and estimate each one’s required contribution. Contributions may, by agreement, be equal or proportionate-to-income, depending upon the parties’ agreement.
As such, “real” child support, defined as each parent’s contribution to the support of the children, may expend far beyond the payment of periodic child support. Out-of -pocket contributions to shared child-related expenses, as depicted herein, do not even include each parent’s individual outlays for the children when they are with the parent. No wonder “real” child support is not only such a high number, but also an unpredictable number. Parents need to collaborate and cooperate in the consideration of each child’s interests and needs and how best to allocate funds in support of the child’s development, a process that takes into account the very crucial questions of parental ability to pay.
Mediation, with a knowledgeable and skilled guide, provides an environment in which parents can consider the needs of their children at the same time that they balance their ability to pay. All parents want what is best for their children. However, the determination of “best” is not always seen through the same prism.
The delicacy of the debate requires insight into the broader picture of child development and financial management. It is the mediator’s job to guide parents through the intricacies of reaching an agreement that is child-centered and financial workable and sound.