Arizona’s Child Support Guidelines have been updated as of April 1, 2018. Although the family law courts did not make substantial changes to the Guidelines, some of the changes will have a significant impact on child support outcomes. This article will answer all your child support questions and provide an in-depth explanation of exactly how the Guidelines function. Understanding the Guidelines can be challenging, but we hope to simplify the important elements that go into each Child Support determination in Arizona.
In divorce mediation, just as in litigation, we use the Child Support Calculator to demonstrate what would be the most likely Judge-determined child support amount in each individual case. Our mediators will help you fill out the Arizona Child Support Calculator and answer any questions to help you better understand child support overall. In mediation, parents discuss whether to mutually agree on the calculator-generated amount, or deviate upward or downward based on the best interest of the children. This approach in mediation allows parents to have a healthier divorce, while also reaching agreements that can work for both themselves and their children moving forward.
The New Child Support Guidelines:
Adopted in 2018 by the Arizona Supreme Court
The Arizona Child Support Guidelines are based on an “Income Share Model – meaning that the child should receive the same proposition of each parent’s individual gross income, as they would if their parents were still living together.” We often describe Arizona’s approach to child support as a “necessities based model” – as support is generally lower than most neighboring states. Each state has different ways of determining child support, and Arizona has taken the perspective of considering the combined incomes of the parents in the final determination of the child support amount.
How Does Child Support Work?
Arizona’s child support calculation aims to be a universal standard, so that child support determinations are consistent based on the same factors for everyone. A universal standard for child support that applies to all divorcing parents with minor children, separated unmarried parents, and includes adopted children. The obligation to pay child support takes priority over all other financial obligations – Arizona puts children first — which is why the failure to pay child support can result in harsh penalties, even including jail time for non-compliance.
Child support must be paid in the form of physical payment from one parent to another. In most cases, through litigation, the State of Arizona can oversee payment by income withholding order through the Arizona Child Support Clearinghouse, in which the State will withhold funds from the payer’s paycheck and transfer those funds to the recipient. Alternatively, parents can mutually agree to pay child support without State intervention through “direct pay.” This option allows for automatic direct deposit each month from the payer’s bank account directly to the recipient’s bank account. Parents have to decide which method will be most likely to help them avoid the need for child support enforcement.
In the context of mediation, where parents avoid court and reach agreements with the help of a divorce mediator, the decision to opt for income withholding order vs. direct pay is based mainly on the comfort level of the recipient as there are various child support services. If one party is very concerned about receiving the funds as their primary financial support, they can discuss options with the division of child support. They may also choose to discuss their options with a family law attorney. Many web resources are available as well with faqs regarding child support in Arizona.
Direct payment for goods or activities by a parent are not considered child support, and would be paid separately from this monthly amount. Additionally, child support does not eliminate a person’s right to collect other forms of support, such as alimony or spousal maintenance.
Can Child Support Be Different Than the Calculator Amount?
There is a presumption under Arizona law that the child support amount dictated by the guidelines will be the amount ordered by the judge. The judge can deviate from the guideline amount if that amount is deemed to be inappropriate or unjust. Similarly, upon mutual agreement, parents can agree to deviate from the determined child support in mediation. Parents can get legal advice at any point in the process.
When Does Child Support End? What is the Duration of Child Support?
The guidelines will determine a presumptive date upon which child support will end. Child support will end the last day of the month that the following events occur:
• The child turns 18 years of age;
• If the child turns 18 while in high school, when the child graduates high school; or
• The child has not graduated high school but turns 19 years of age.
For example, the child turns 18 years of age in March of her Senior Year of high school. Child support will remain in effect until the last day of the month she graduates high school, or the last day of the month of her 19th birthday, should she still be attending high school at that time.
In another instance, if the child graduates in May and turns 18 years of age in July, child support will continue through July.
The child support guidelines further presume that children will graduate from high school in May, and additionally that a child will enter 1st grade if they reach the age of 6 before September 1 of any given year. What does this mean in regard to the realities of each family’s actual real-life situation? Not much. The guidelines are built around general presumptions, but child support law allows discretion for a judge to order support different from the guidelines’ amount, and for parents to mutually agree on a different amount based on specific circumstances.
How is Gross Income of the Parties Determined for Child Support?
As we discussed, the guidelines follow an “Income Share Model,” in which the incomes of both parents are considered. But what exactly does “gross income” include? The guidelines take a very broad view of income that must be included in a parent’s “gross income” and list almost any form of income that may be earned including, but not limited to:
• Severance Pay
• Social Security or Worker’s Compensation Benefits
• Recurring gifts
• Other considerations
Is Overtime or Seasonal Work Considered Income?
Overtime is not generally considered as income. The court’s position is that a parent should have the choice of working additional hours through overtime or a second job without increasing child support, except if that overtime was “historically earned” and is anticipated to continue in future. Even if income is seasonal or fluctuates, the court will annualize this amount over 12 months.
For example, a police officer may work overtime as part of his regular, consistent schedule based on a 3 day on, 3 day off schedule. The additional income would likely be considered income for the child support calculator, even if work hours exceed 40 hours per week.
Can the Court Attribute “Earning Capacity” If A Spouse Is Unemployed Or Under-Employed?
One of the most controversial elements of the guidelines is that a parent who is unemployed or working below their earning capacity (under-employed) can be attributed income based on their “earning capacity.”
For example, Mom has not earned an income in five (5) years, but previously worked in the medical sales industry for ten (10) years earning between $80,000 and $150,000 during her ten years of employment. A judge could attribute Mom’s earning capacity based on her history of earning. But there has also been a five-year gap in employment. In court, a judge could potentially attribute Mom’s earning capacity as minimum wage, or $80,000, or $150,000, or any amount that the judge determines is Mom’s capacity were she to apply for employment.
In mediation, the mediator helps parents have realistic conversations about what is the most likely income for Mom considering all the circumstances, and agree together on Mom’s most reasonable and likely earning capacity. Creative agreements can even be reached where Mom is attributed little or no income for a specific period – perhaps three (3) or six (6) months – at the end of which time parents return to mediation to reassess the child support amount based on Mom’s actual income being earned. This approach can help keep conflict low and base the ultimate child support award on gross income that is real, rather than estimated.
Another example: Dad has a ten (10) year career earning of $100,000 to $200,000 annually. Several months prior to the divorce filing, Dad decides to become a minimalist, quit his job, and be at one with the land—picking strawberries for $10 per hour. Will the court determine that Dad’s earning capacity is more than $10 per hour for the purposes of the Child Support Calculator? We know that the court’s focus is on the best interest of the child or children, so, in these circumstances, what is best for the kids will guide the court’s decision-making.
What is a person’s earning capacity? The subjectivity of this question is why the attribution of income can be so wildly litigated in court. The court attempted to resolve some of this debate by including aspects of the parent’s life that should be considered when attributing income. Some of these factors include:
• Employment and Earning History
• Job Skills
• Educational Attainment
• And more
Although in most cases, judges will at least attribute minimum wage, there are also exceptions to this attribution rule. Exceptions may include:
• The parent having physical or mental disabilities;
• The parent being engaged in some training or employment that establishes basic skills that will enhance their earning capacity;
• Unusual emotional or physical needs of a child that cause a parent to need to be present in the home;
• The parent is a recipient of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program; or
• The parent cares for young children and the childcare costs are prohibitive.
Further, the income of a parent’s new spouse is not treated as income.
In mediation, we work with our clients to determine what parents believe a judge would assign for gross income and also what they each believe is most reasonable to attribute. Together, the mediator shows parents how including different income amounts will impact on the actual final child support number, as determined by the guidelines.
Oftentimes, parents are hotly debating what income to include for a parent. But many times, the income used actually causes very little effect on the child support amount.
For example, last year Dad earned $300,000 gross income. However, in the two previous years, Dad earned $220,000 and $190,000, respectively. Parents might fight over which income to attribute for hours in mediation, or months in litigation, but when parents are shown the Arizona Child Support Calculator and they can see that the difference in child support for $190,000 vs. $300,000 is only $100 per month, suddenly, there is little need to fight about which income amount to use and compromise is only minutes away.
Our mediators, at The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation, work to create a collaborative child support agreement in which parents control these decisions.
What If the Parent Is Self-Employed or Owns A Business?
If a parent is self-employed or a business owner, it can be challenging to determine the correct gross income amount to use for child support purposes. Generally, income from self-employment is considered gross revenue (100% of any money generated) minus “ordinary and necessary” business expenses. These expenses are the necessary expenses without which the business could not survive. Think payroll, office rent, necessary marketing, etc. However, a parent may be able to deduct expenses for tax purposes that would not be deducted for child support purposes. For instance, payment for a car, phone, or internet at your house may be deductible for IRS purposes, but should not be deducted for child support purposes because all parents typically have the cost of cars, phones, and internet.
Adjustments to Gross Income
After determining gross incomes – which in mediation, both spouses will agree upon – the mediator will go through different items that adjust gross income based, such as additional payments that are currently being made by each spouse. The idea is that if you are already paying certain expenses, these funds are not actually available to be dispersed. These adjustments include:
• Court-ordered spousal maintenance paid in the current or a past marriage.
• Court-ordered child support for children of other relationships.
• Support for another minor child that is not subject to the current child support or any previous court orders.
• Other adjustments for healthcare premiums, daycare expenses, and extraordinary expenses, which are explained in more detail below.
How Parent’s Adjusted Gross Income is Determined?
The gross income of each parent, minus adjustments, as discussed above, equals each individual’s gross income. The individual gross incomes are added together to find the Combined Adjusted Gross Income.
What is the Maximum Child Support Obligation?
The Child Support Calculator starts with a basic child support amount as determined by the gross monthly combined income of the parents and the number of children they have. Both elements are factored into a maximum child support amount. The child support guidelines consider up to 6 children and up to $20,000 per month earned by both parents collectively. If you reach either threshold, in terms of number of children or amount of combined gross income, the calculator will hit a maximum child support number.
In other words, if Mom earns $15,000 per month and Dad earns $5,000 per month, the child support award might be that Mom pays Dad $2,000 per month in child support. If Mom gets a raise and then makes $25,000 per month, child support has already hit it’s ceiling and will remain at $2,000 per month. In court, you would be required to prove that you needed any amount in addition to this maximum amount. However, in mediation, you may mutually agree to deviate to a higher amount, as that may be in the best interest of your children.
How is the Total Child Support Obligation Determined?
Once the basic monthly child support obligation is calculated the court has a number of additional expenses to consider, which are either mandatory or discretionary.
The court must consider the children’s health insurance premium amount for medical, dental, and vision coverage. The cost of the minor children’s insurance alone, excluding parents or other adult family members, is the amount typically used. How do you determine this amount? A simple way of looking at it is:
The monthly insurance premium cost for parent + children
The monthly insurance premium cost for parent only
The amount the parent spends on children for medical insurance, which should be used in the calculator.
The court may consider including other expenses into the child support calculator, such as:
• Child care Costs: Child care costs are annualized and included in the child support calculator. For example, if child care costs are $500 per month for 8 months each year and $700 per month for 4 months each year, the average monthly cost would be $567 ($500 x 8) + ($700 x 4) / 12. The court may also consider any tax credit given by the federal government in relation to child care costs. This credit is only given to the parent with a greater amount of parenting time each year, who also has a child care expense. In mediation, if child care costs exist, we can show you how the addition of this expense would or would not impact your child support amount.
• Education Expenses: Educational expenses traditionally cover expenses paid for children attending private schools, but could also cover necessary expenses beyond normal educational expenses. These educational expenses must be mutually agreed upon by the parents.
• Extraordinary Expenses: Extraordinary expenses are those expenses beyond the needs of most children, particularly relating to special needs, gifted, or handicapped children. This section would include expenses that are necessary to assist a child with such needs.
• Older Child Adjustment: The court acknowledges that expenses for children 12 years of age or older exceeds the expenses for children younger than 12 years of age. The child support calculator automatically adjusts for this increase, accounting for any and all children that are 12 years of age or older.
How to Determine Each Parent’s Proportionate Share of the Total Child Support Obligation?
The total amount needed for child support is divided amongst the parents based on their monthly gross income. This results in a percentage to demonstrate each parent’s contribution to the total gross income between them.
For example, the Combined Gross income of the parents is $10,000 per month. Dad makes $7,000 per month and Mom makes $3,000 per month in gross income. Thus, Dad’s share would be 70% and Mom’s share would be 30%. Practically speaking, Dad will pay Mom child support. Mom will not pay Dad child support. Understanding the proportional share of income can help parents reach agreements in mediation about how to divide out of pocket medical expenses, extra-curricular activity expenses, childcare costs and educational costs.
How to Adjust Child Support for Costs Associated with Parenting Time?
The guidelines generally consider that each parent will have equal parenting time with the children, but can also be adjusted to consider the exact amount of time each parent has with their children based on the parent’s parenting time. Of course, when a parent has more time with children, children use more of that parent’s resources and lead to more expenses being paid for the children by one parent. This can be considered in the child support calculation.. It is important to understand how Arizona approaches the idea of what constitutes “time” With a parent. Let’s look at the following samples:
To fill out the calculator properly, we must determine what blocks of time the parent has with the children , understood as time from pick-up to time of drop-off.
24 hours = 1 day
12 hours or more = 1 day
6 to 11 hours = ½ day
3 to 5 hours = ¼ day
The court is mainly looking to when routine expenses for the children are spent, such as supplying the children with meals.
For example, Mother’s parenting time includes picking up the children on Wednesday after school (4 p.m.) and returns them to school on Friday morning (8 a.m.). Mother also has the children on Sunday morning from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Now let’s calculate the time:
Wednesday 4 p.m. to Friday 8 a.m. = 2 days
Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. = 1 day
Total = 3 days
The number of days per month is added to the calculator, resulting in the child support obligation being adjusted by a related percentage, to benefit the parent with more parenting time.
Equal Parenting Time
If the parenting time with each parent is essentially equal, no adjustment will be made regarding the number of days spent with each parent.
How to Determine the Child Support Order?
The person with less parenting time may be required to pay additional child support in accordance with the guidelines, specifically to address the additional resources used with the parent having a majority of the parenting time. It is presumed by the court that the parent receiving child support will utilize the funds for the benefit of the children. The amount of child support is determined as we have discussed, by finding the total child support amount and applying any adjustments. The court will always adjust the child support amount to the nearest whole dollar.
In mediation, parents will understand the ultimate result of the child support calculator, but may mutually agree to deviate up or down from this amount in consideration of their children’s best interests.
Parents may feel the calculator-generated amount is not adequate, because their children have needs that are not considered in the guidelines. Often, we see parents mutually agree that even though the calculator results in $200 per month, they will deviate the award to $400 per month, because it is more fair and reasonable considering the children’s needs.
Another scenario may be that one parent has taken on extra expenses. Parents may agree that Dad pays 100% of all the children’s extracurricular activities, which is substantially more than the child support amount. After thoughtful discussions, Mom and Dad determine that extra-curricular activities cost about $500 per month for the children. The parents agree that the fairest approach, that is in the best interests of the children, is that Dad reduce child support from $200 per month to $100 per month because Dad is paying for 100% of extra-curricular activities. Parents may deviate from the child support calculator amount so long as they are in mutual agreement and the deviation is in the best interest of the children.
What is the Self-Support Reserve Test?
The Self-Support Reserve Test determines if the assigned child support amount is actually feasible when reviewing each parent’s gross income. The court assigns a number as the self-support reserve amount, in considering the current minimum wage. The current self-support reserve amount is $1,456 per month. This amount is compared to the child support calculation to determine whether the assigned child support payment can be paid in relation to the paying parent’s income or at least, minimum wage. This test is an automatic function with the child support calculator.
What If We Have Multiple Children with Different Parenting Time Schedules?
Although not very common, sometimes parents may have different parenting time schedules with different children. For example, the daughter may live with Mom full-time, but the son spends equal time with both parents. Each parent is still obligated to support all of the children, even if they do not have parenting time. A calculation will be used to determine the average of the total number of parenting days with the parent who does not have the majority of parenting time. This calculation will then result in an adjustment of the total child support obligation number.
Will the Court Allocate Travel Expenses Associated with Parenting Time?
The court may consider allocating travel expenses, if the travel exceeds 100 miles. On occasion, one parent may live in another state, which impedes their ability to have parenting time with their children. The court wants the children to have continued contact with both parents, as much as feasibly possible. When considering travel expenses, the court may look at why the parent lives in another state, the age of the children, the income of both parents, and other potentially relevant factors.
Can Child Support Be Made By Gifts In Lieu of Money
Child support cannot be made via gifts or non-monetary items, such as clothes, resources, etc. Child support must be paid in cash, unless the court orders otherwise.
Can Parents Decide To Deviate From the Arizona Child Support Calculator?
As we have discussed, deviations from the child support amount are allowed in court and in mediation. For a deviation to occur, the following elements must all be met:
• Application of the guidelines (i.e. child support calculator number) is inappropriate or unjust in the particular case;
• The deviation is not contrary to the best interests of the children;
• The court or parties give written finds or reasons for the deviation;
• The court or parties show what the amount would have been without deviation; and
• The court or parties show what the amount is after deviation.
In mediation, as well as in court, it is also important that the following criteria exist:
• The agreement is in writing;
• All the parties (the parents) entered into the agreement with knowledge of the amount of child support before the deviation; and
• The parties have not entered into the agreement because of duress or coercion.
Thus, per your mutual agreement in mediation, after seeing the child support amount suggested by the court and understanding how that number was reached, you may agree to deviate from the amount if you have reason to do so and it is in the best interests of your children.
Can Child Support Be Awarded To a Third-Party Caregiver?
Although very rare, on occasion, a child may be in the full-time care of a third-party caregiver. In this instance, child support should be paid to this caregiver. The guidelines specify that when determining the child support payment, the caregiver’s expenses should be considered, but not their income.
How will information about Gross Income be collected?
The court will collect information from each parent, including their individual gross incomes, to determine the child support obligation. We similarly collect this information in mediation, through our Mediation Questionnaire, which is a form of voluntary disclosure. In either instance, we will typically look at W-2’s, taxes for the last three years, 1099’s, and paystubs.
How Will Parents Exchange Income Information In Order To Determine if Child Support Should Be Modified?
Under Arizona law, parents are required to share their financial information, including tax returns and income statements, every 24 months. We include this language in every Parenting Plan we file with the court. You may mutually agree to share this information more frequently, but this is the default Arizona law.
How To Modify Child Support
Either parent has the right to modify child support through the court upon a finding of substantial and continuing change of circumstances. Simply, this means that modification may occur if any change to the child support calculator results in a change of 15% or more from the original child support amount. Such changes could include a gain or loss in income, a child aging out of child support while other minor children remain, etc.
Post-divorce mediation can simply and smoothly assist parents with a modification of child support, if there is a substantial change in circumstances or upon mutual agreement. Many of our divorce mediation clients return to our office to have their child support, or other parenting plan issues, modified after their divorce has concluded.
How Do You Modify Child Support When a Child Turns 18 Years Old?
Many parents commonly have more than one child, so what happens when a child ages out of child support and is no longer considered? The court will not automatically change the child support amount. It is the responsibility of one or both parents to request a modification to child support.
A parent can request a modification of child support by petitioning the court. However, this unilateral Petition for child support modification can often result in escalation of conflict wherein the Petition is disputed, resulting in litigation.
To avoid litigation, parents can opt to attend mediation to resolve the modification by mutual agreement and avoid ever addressing the issue in court. They can consult with a law firm at any point during mediation if they wish to seek legal advice. A new child support calculator will be run with the remaining children and a new child support amount will be determined by the parents.
Will Income or Benefits Received By or on Behalf of A Child Be Included In The Child Support Calculator?
In most cases, any income earned or money received by a child will not be counted towards either parent’s child support obligation. There are exceptions to this rule, such as benefits received by a parent on behalf of a child or child support ordered to continue past the age of majority, but these instances are not common.
How Will The Federal Income Dependency Tax Exemption for Children Be Divided?
Tax exemptions are often divided by the court in proportion to parent’s income and child support contributions. For example, if one parent’s proportion is 33%, this parent will claim the children as a tax exemption once every three years, while the other parent claims the children two of every three years. In mediation, we can follow this method, but you can also opt for other options, such as each parent claiming one child each year, rotating each year in who claims the children, or other creative approaches that both parents believe is most fair.
Notably, the federal child tax exemption was eliminated beginning in 2019 by the 2017 Tax Reform Law. Now parents consider allocating the newly increased Child Tax Credits. These negotiable tax credits now allow a credit of up to $2,000 per child, and may allow for a credit of $500 per child for adult children who meet certain criteria.
How Do You Enforce a Child Support Order?
The Arizona Division of Child Support Services (DCSS) provides services to parents and caretakers who receive child support as well as parents who pay child support. Some of the services include obtaining a child support order, collecting child, medical and spousal support from parents who have a court order, and helping unwed parents establish paternity for their child.
For matters concerning child support enforcement, call the Arizona Department of Economic Security Child Support Enforcement Department at phone number: 602-252-4045.
In any child support enforcement action of a child support case you may seek specific legal advice on state law from an attorney familiar with financial support issues and superior court procedures.
We hope this article has been illuminating as to the factors considered when determining child support in Arizona. As we have discussed, these child support guidelines apply in both litigation or mediation, but mediation may allow for more productive conversations that result in deviations. These deviations may better reflect what both parents believe is most fair and in the best interest of the child. The Arizona Guidelines, while at times complicated, create a system in which child support can be determined in any situation, regardless of income, number of children, or specific life circumstances.