Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: 2009 Guidelines - Unintended Consequences? (Part Four of Ten)

The 2009 Guidelines may well have been higher but better, as they appeared to "get the policy right," as I discussed in Part Three of this series. However, appearing to get the policy right should not be enough to satisfy us. The proof is in the pudding. The Guidelines should be examined and tested, in various scenarios, to make sure that the actual outputs comport with our view of a fair allocation of parental resources. We should not be satisfied just because the policy is “right,” if despite that, the numbers we get as outputs do not seem fair. Indeed, family law litigants will never let us ignore the results. Outputs deemed unfair are what lead to criticism that in turn results in reforms at the next guidelines review cycle. The latest changes of the 2013 Guidelines certainly reflect much expressed dissatisfaction with child support outcomes, that is, primarily with the historically high awards, in most categories, of the 2009 Guidelines. 

The record-high awards of the 2009 Guidelines themselves are not likely to have been unintended consequences, as there was dissent on the guidelines task force, even a written dissent in fact, pointing to the realization that these guidelines would produce higher, and arguably too high, awards.  The higher awards probably reflected two things, the first of which I am fairly certain, and the second less so, as it is based more on speculation and intuition: 1) the new shared-income model, in adding together income from both parents first, before deeming a portion of that shared income as child support, and then allocating according to relative income, naturally puts upward pressure on the total child support amount ultimately awarded, in absolute value terms, as joint incomes increase, and 2) the awards, in most categories, may have been allowed to go higher for the benefit of those on the task force who have traditionally favored relatively high awards, as a concession for, or in exchange for, the big shared-income and shared-parenting paradigm shifts about to be made.

Those paradigm shifts surely would have been favored by the new voice on the task force, lead by Ned Holstein, from the organization then called Fathers and Families, and now re-named the National Parents Organization, whose raison d'etre has been advocacy of their view of equal rights for fathers to parent their children and specifically for shared parenting policies and gender equity as they see them. On the other hand, in the dissent, Ned Holstein broadly criticizes the guidelines for, among other things, not having a proper rationale.  I cannot help but think, however, that he would have welcomed generally not only the new shared parenting formula but also the new shared income paradigm itself.

My strong suspicion is that the more traditional forces insisted on the relatively high awards in some implicit exchange for the big paradigm shift that paved the way for the new shared parenting provisions and the shared income model.   The task force members - an unusually large, and most diverse group, in contrast to prior task forces, and in contrast to the latest, smaller task force for 2013 as well - had to be aware that they were creating guidelines that would lead to higher awards for most categories of payors.  That is apparent from the fact that a Minority Report issued - by  Ned Holstein, with partial concurrence from two other individuals on the task force, including economist Mark Sarro, Ph.D. (whose comments appeared in the last part of this series) - which strongly protested what it deemed the "generally excessive" nature of the awards about to be instituted. (To see the conflict yourself, compare that minority report with the Task Force Report (Majority Report).

After the 2009 Guidelines issued, Fathers and Families went beyond Ned Holstein's mere words of dissent, and went to federal court, and then state court as well, in an unsuccessful effort to try to block use of the child support guidelines on that same basis.  Later in this series of blogs, I will more specifically discuss the politics of child support, ever present though often cloaked in niceties and banal platitudes about the "best interests of the children," that all-important and vague legal principle that is a buzzword easily tossed about by advocates of all stripes.

In any case, the relatively high, and arguably too high, awards that resulted from the 2009 Guidelines, were consequences well anticipated and understood, if not fully intended, by the task force, well before implementation of the 2009 Guidelines. But there were other consequences that more likely were neither foreseen nor intended, as in fact they appeared to operate at odds with the new shared-income rationale.  What am I talking about? Well, these high awards of the 2009 Guidelines - relative both to the guidelines of other states and to previous Massachusetts guidelines - relate to the fact that the new formula, though designed as a shared income model, actually in practice often functioned more like a percentage of income model. The 2009 Guidelines, according to financial planner James McCusker, in practice made child support more of a “fixed cost (as a percentage of income) rather than a variable cost.” In particular, upon comparing results under the 2005 and 2009 guidelines, McCusker found:
In all the calculations performed, the “new” guidelines produced child support amounts that approximated 25% of payor gross income. Under the “old” guidelines that percentage went down to approximately 14% when payor and recipient income reached parity.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the 2013 Guidelines, while continuing, and adding to, the new shared parenting provisions, also managed to reduce the child support awards, even by as much as 10 to 15 percent, for many categories of payors (link is to Justin Kelsey's article on the 2013 Guidelines in Family Mediation Quarterly).  Nevertheless, even after these significant reductions from the highs of the 2009 Guidelines, the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines of 2013 remain quite high relative to other states, as detailed in a most recent, comprehensive comparison of the guidelines of all states in late 2013, by child support expert and economist Jane Venohr (article previously cited in Part One).  Her research as reported in that article reveals the remarkable fact that Massachusetts’ 2013 Guidelines still yield either the very highest or second highest awards, among all 50 states and the District of Columbia, in all three of the varied case scenarios she examined.
In Part Five, I will begin to discuss that next, awkward step: the 2013 Guidelines.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: 2009 Guidelines - Higher But Better? (Part Three of Ten)

The 2009 Guidelines brought many changes as part of the move to a shared income model, all consistent with the growing recognition that the needs, income, and contributions of both parents should be considered in determining appropriate levels of support. The 2009 Guidelines provided, for the first time, a cross-calculation to be used, both in cases of joint custody, where parenting time was “approximately equal,” and split custody, where parents had primary custody of different children. These cross-calculations, which “split the difference” between the putative amounts each parent would be obligated to pay for the other’s custodial parenting, had already been used informally by many judges and practitioners, as one of the more popular methods for determining child support in these situations in the years before the 2009 Guidelines. 

Beyond this explicit treatment of joint custody and split custody situations, the 2009 Guidelines did many other things to move away from the old tendency to unduly focus primarily on the needs of the recipient/custodial parent on the one hand, and to unduly focus primarily on the ability to pay of the payor/noncustodial parent, on the other. For example, the 2009 Guidelines eliminated the “income disregard” (of the first $20,000 of custodial income), which had always only applied to the custodial parent/recipient; this had been justified as the provision of an effective exemption from consideration of what was needed for basic living expenses (“a roof over the head”) for the custodial parent, but was hard to sustain in the face of criticism that the noncustodial parent also had basic needs, including a roof over his or her head as well. 

Other provisions of the 2009 Guidelines, as very thoroughly described by Gayle Stone-Turesky and Katherine Garren in their 2009 article, such as the “circuit breaker” and the new hypothetical guideline used to account for legal obligations to support additional children though done without a court order, all reflected a new, more comprehensive, big-picture, shared-parenting kind of thinking. The new approach was to treat child support as something that springs not from the child support payor or noncustodial parent alone, but from both parents, apportioned and transferred from one party to the other, through use of a shared income formula that first calculates a deemed total shared support amount based on shared financial responsibility. 

Many of us who have been early and consistent champions of shared income and shared parenting, both as models for determining child support and as models for thinking more broadly about parenting and support issues, saw these 2009 Guidelines as a substantial improvement. We saw them as better in many ways, perhaps even for those parents, most often the fathers, who were not the recipients but instead the payors of child support, and even though the 2009 Guidelines raised the obligations for these noncustodial parents, in most if not all categories of payors, to their highest levels ever. As Mark Sarro, economist and former member of the Child Support Task Force, said at the time: “child support amounts under the new guidelines are higher almost across the board (in all but the highest-income cases).” Yet he went on to say that the 2009 Guidelines were better even though higher, because they got the policy right: 
The most notable economic improvement is that the new guidelines symmetrically account for both parents’ financial and non-financial contributions to their children. The guidelines are entirely even-handed; the same rules now apply to both payors and recipients. For example, the ad-hoc income disregard is gone. All of the income definitions and cost deductions apply equally to payors and recipients. So do the amounts in Tables A and B, in proportion to each person’s share of combined income. Conditioning support amounts on the relative contributions of both households in the same way assures that each parent pays child costs in proportion to their relative ability to pay and under the same policy constraints.
 In Part Four, I will address some possible unintended consequences of the 2009 Guidelines.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: The National Trend Toward Shared Income and Shared Parenting Models (Part Two of Ten)

Beginning with the 2009 overhaul, Massachusetts has been part of a national trend toward a shared income model as the favored child support guidelines model, and specifically away from models that focus primarily or solely on the obligor’s income. The first child support guidelines for the 50 states and the District of Columbia began about 25 years ago (ours was in 1987).

By 1990, there were already 31 states with shared income models, but also 15 states with percentage of obligor’s income shares models, known simply as percentage of income models, two jurisdictions with guidelines based primarily on percentage of income models, but with modifications and thus called hybrid models (Massachusetts and DC), and three states with Melson formula models.  For more detailed information about the guidelines models in use throughout the U.S., see economist and child support expert Jane Venohr's recent article in the Family Law Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (Fall 2013), "Child Support Guidelines and Guidelines Reviews: State Differences and Common Issues" available here to ABA members.

By the end of 2013, both of the hybrid model jurisdictions, Massachusetts and DC, had moved to shared income models, and six states with straight percentage of income models had also moved to shared income models. Consequently, the new totals, as of the end of 2013, according to Venohr, are now as follows: 39 jurisdictions with shared income models, 9 with percentage of income models, and 3 with Melson formula models (hybrid models are gone altogether).

Massachusetts has also been part of the trend toward more recognition, and accounting for, “non-traditional” (to use the old language) cases of joint custody and split custody. Massachusetts is one of four states that in 1999 had no shared parenting formulas but now do, bringing the total of jurisdictions with shared parenting formulas from 30, in 1999, to 34 today, again according to Venohr.

Massachusetts, which adopted its first shared parenting formula, as well as its similar split custody formula, in the 2009 Guidelines, is one of the two states that adopted this new shared parenting formula as part of a simultaneous move to a shared income model for child support. Massachusetts thus provides a good illustration of both of these national trends, the one toward shared income as the favored child support guidelines model, and the other toward greater recognition and explicit treatment of shared parenting situations.
In Part Three, I will discuss that giant leap of the 2009 Guidelines.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and Shared Parenting: Introduction (Part One of Ten)

Recently I have been researching the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and their history since the first Massachusetts support guidelines of 1987, and have been comparing them with child support guidelines in other states. That is mainly because I have a journal article or two in the works and will be presenting a workshop "Shared Parenting and Child Support: Formulas, Incentives and Consequences" at the annual conference of the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC) in Toronto, May 28-31. The theme of this year's conference is shared parenting, and my particular workshop, at the last session on the last day of the conference, is entitled "Shared Parenting and Child Support: Formulas, Incentives and Consequences." Here's the brochure's description:
The workshop will explore the range of child support models being used across the country, including income share models, percentage of income models, and Melson Formula models, and how they affect, and are affected by, decisions about shared parenting. The workshop will explore the relationship between child support guidelines and child custody determinations, and the often attendant challenges related to the inevitable incentives to increase or decrease either of the dependent variables of child support and child parenting time in order to influence the other.
Through my recent research, I have learned a lot about the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines and how they compare to the guidelines of other states. I already knew quite a bit about the Massachusetts guidelines, of course, as I regularly use them in my practice as a Massachusetts family law attorney. But now I have a broader perspective, after having examined the guidelines and practices of other jurisdictions in some detail. Aided by that new perspective, I am beginning with this blog a ten-part series about the Massachusetts Child Support guidelines, their history, and particularly their recent evolution in response to the national trend in favor of shared income models for child support guidelines, and the national trend in development of specific provisions and policies to recognize and foster shared parenting. 

The latest Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, effective August 1, 2013, continue a trend toward greater emphasis on shared income and shared parenting, begun with the last quadrennial child support guidelines revision of 2009, which was, in contrast to prior guidelines, the first “extensive overhaul” of the guidelines’ principles and formulas, following the mere “tinkering” of earlier guidelines revisions, as William and Chouteau Levine have put it. The early guidelines, from 1987 through 2005, only considered what was then called the “traditional” case, where there was a custodial parent and a noncustodial parent. 

Any shared parenting or split parenting situations, as they were not specifically addressed in the guidelines, were then commonly referred to as “outside the guidelines” and thus their treatment, for purposes of child support determinations, was left in the complete discretion of the court. The primary purpose of this ten-part series of blogs is to focus on our own recent history, particularly our evolving principles of shared income and shared parenting, and ultimately to critically examine the 2013 Guidelines as they represent the latest awkward step our Commonwealth has taken, after the first, giant leap of the 2009 Guidelines, to incorporate our evolving principles of shared income and shared parenting into our child support determinations.
In Part Two, I will discuss the evolution of our guidelines in relation to national trends.
For information about Massachusetts divorce and family law, see the divorce and family law page of my law firm website.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Alimony Statute Construed: No Credit For Time Served!

Today the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court just decided, in Holmes v. Holmes (see and view the oral arguments here) that temporary alimony, awarded before final judgment in a divorce action, does not have to be credited toward a calculation of the maximum term of general term alimony.   This means that if temporary alimony is awarded, as it often is, during the pendency of a divorce action, there does not have to be "credit for time served" (to use my own, admittedly imperfect analogy to criminal sentencing) in determining the ultimate award of general term alimony when the divorce is finalized.

I just read the decision, as it was released online today.  I had expected, like my colleague Jonathan Eaton, for the Court to rule differently, or for at least some of the justices to offer a dissenting opinion. I also expected better and more thoughtful analysis in the opinion, and am not at all sure I agree with the conclusions made.

The relevant alimony statutes, as amended by the 2011 alimony reform law that went into effect in 2012, do not make clear the relationship between temporary alimony and general term alimony awards.  The appellant in this case is certainly not the only one who assumed he would get credit for his ¨time served¨paying temporary alimony.   Like it or not, the Court at least answered the question pretty decisively, and now if folks don´t like it -  in the alimony reform movement, for example - they can gather forces to try to amend the statutory provisions yet again.

A big reason why I am not sure I like this decision is the arguably unfair results I am imagining in cases of short-term marriages where the maximum general term alimony would be much shorter in duration than in this case, say two or three years, for example, and so tacking on temporary alimony, during litigation of a year or two or even longer, could very substantially increase the effective length of alimony commitment relative to the length of the marriage. There are also the obvious problems that flow from the incentive this decision may give to alimony recipients to prolong divorce proceedings to increase the total alimony payout period.

For an excellent and much more detailed explanation of the decision, and what it means for family law litigants, see Justin Kelsey´s blog of today.

Meanwhile, at least for now, all you guys and gals who may have to pay alimony, you should know that until the statute is changed again, there's no guaranteed "credit for time served."

For information about Massachusetts divorce and family law, see the divorce and family law page of my law firm website.