Thursday, May 1, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: Puzzling Provisions in the 2013 Guidelines (Part Five of Ten)

The 2013 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines introduced some interesting but puzzling provisions. As I said earlier, the 2013 Guidelines represented the next awkward step, after that first, giant leap of the 2009 Guidelines, to incorporate evolving principles of shared income and shared parenting. Now I will begin to discuss, in this and the following several parts of this series, that next awkward step. The 2013 Guidelines created a new category between sole and joint custody for parents who have their children between 33 and 50 percent of the time. For them, support is to be the “average” of the amounts that would be paid under joint custody (equal or "approximately" equal parenting time) and sole custody (the "approximately" one third/two thirds split).

It remains unclear how and when this new cross-calculation should apply, however, and where the boundaries lie among the new categories of parenting time. I have found several inter-related and overlapping problems with the new shared parenting and other provisions of the 2013 Guidelines, which together create these new, vague categories of parenting time.  To see directly for yourself what I will be discussing, read the 2013 Guidelines here, particularly the "Parenting Time" provision on pages 6-7 and the "Deviation" provisions on pages 11-12, specifically paragraph 13.

Others have already written about some of the problems these new provisions present. Justin Kelsey observed that use of the term “approximately” is vague, and that calculating the average “sounds simple, but in application this will be the most difficult new section because it is not entirely clear when to apply the new formula and because at times the results will be counterintuitive.” Justin Kelsey, "A Mediator’s Guide For Understanding the 2013 Child Support Guidelines Changes," Family Mediation Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 9-19 (Summer 2013). William and Chouteau Levine complained that while the provision for upwards deviation for parenting time under 33 percent is vague, the “greater but not equal shared parenting” provisions, by contrast, appear “way specific.” William and Chouteau Levine, 2013 Child Support Guidelines Preview, Part 5 Slicing the Parenting Plan?, Levine Dispute Resolution Center: Divorce Mediation Blog (Aug. 28, 2013)

In those early articles on the 2013 Guidelines, commentators had only begun to scratch the surface of a big problem, or several inter-related and overlapping ones actually, which I have organized for descriptive purposes into the following seven issues:

1. How do we count parenting time to arrive at percentages? Do we count nights? Days?Actual hours? If so, do we include sleeping hours and do we count them differently? Do we count school time, and if so how, and who gets credit: the parent who drops off the child, who picks up the child, who picks up the child when sick, who has primary custody? What about weekends and holidays? Do we count them the same as school time, or more because they constitute “quality time”?

2. When and how should we deviate when the noncustodial parent has less than 33 percent? A provision allows upward deviation if the noncustodial parent has less than 33 percent of parenting time. When should we deviate? At 32 percent? At 25 percent? By how much?

3. What does "approximately equally" mean? What is “approximately” half or equal time? Is it 46 percent? 48 percent? 49.5 percent?

4. What does "approximately one-third of the time" mean? What is an “approximately” one third/two thirds split? When does “approximately 33 percent” cease to be that and become “between 33 and 50 percent”? Is 34%/66% approximately one third/two thirds? How about 37%/63%? But don’t the guidelines suggest the second cross-calculation applies to any number between 33 and 50 percent?

5. Do we want dramatic changes at the 33 percent line? If we can deviate upwards at 32 percent and use the second cross-calculation at 34 percent, the changes at that line could be extreme, especially if the parent with less time also has a much smaller income.

6. What does “average” mean here? Is the “average” always the literal average of the two numbers, both when it would be of putative amounts paid by the same payor, and when it would be of putative amounts paid by different payors to each other? Should we use a negative sign when taking the average of numbers representing transfers in opposite directions, to find the true compromise? Without the negative sign, averages in cases where the parent has both less time and income skew in the wrong direction, contrary to the guidelines’ rationale. Instead of benefitting parents when they have more than 33 (but less than 50) percent of the parenting time, it would punish them. In extreme cases, support computed that way would exceed the payor’s actual available income!

7. Must the “recipient” always be the parent with more parenting time? Is the parent with more time the only one who can receive a child support payment? Can we shift the presumed payor and recipient?
 In Part Six, I will begin to explore these problems through discussion of a recent court case.

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