Arizona’s Child Support Guidelines were updated as of April 1, 2018. Although the courts did not make substantial changes to the Guidelines, some will make 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 most likely Judge-determined child support amount in each individual case. Our mediators use the Arizona Child Support Calculator and help answer any questions to better understand child support. In mediation, parents discuss whether to mutually agree on the calculator generated amount, or deviate upward or downward based on the best interests of their children. This approach results in parents having a healthier divorce.
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.” We sometimes describe Arizona’s approach as a “necessities based model.” 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. Child support to all divorcing parents with minor children, and separated unmarried parents, including 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 such harsh penalties, including even jail time for non-compliance.
Child support must be paid from one parent to the other in the form of cash. 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.
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.
Direct payment for goods or activities by a parent are not considered child support. Additionally, child support does not eliminate a person’s right to collect other forms of support, such as spousal maintenance.
Can Child Support Be Different Than the Calculator Amount?
Regardless of the type of case involving parenting time, there is a presumption 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 it is inappropriate or unjust though. Similarly, upon mutual agreement, you can agree to deviate from the child support amount determined by mutual agreement of parents in mediation.
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 of the last of the following events to occur:
• The child turns 18 years of age;
• 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.
The child support guidelines further presume that children will graduate from high school in May, as well as 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 parents to mutually agree on a different amount, based on specific circumstances as well.
How is Gross Income of the Parties Determined for Child Support?
As we discussed, the guidelines take 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
• And more
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. All that income would likely be considered income 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 or six 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 spends a ten (10) year career earning $100,000 to $200,000 during that time. Several months prior to the divorce filing, Dad decides to become a minimalist, quit his job, and be 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 courts focus here is on the best interests of children, and so, in these circumstances, what is best for 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 cost of childcare is 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, your mediator shows parents how including different income amounts have a large or small impact on the actual final child support number, as determined by the guidelines.
Often times, 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 in the Arizona Child Support Calculator that the difference in child support if $190,000 vs. $300,000 is attributed is only $100 per month, suddenly, there is little need to fight about which income amount to use and compromise is a matter of 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 should not be deducted for child support purposes. For instance, payment for a car or 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 your gross incomes, which in mediation, both spouses will agree upon, the mediator will go through different elements that adjust your gross income based on other payments that are currently being made by each spouse. The idea is that if you 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, child care expenses, and extraordinary expenses are explained below.
How is Adjusted Gross Income of the Parents Determined?
The gross income of each parent minus their 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 number, 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. In mediation though, 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?
From the basic child support obligation, the court must attribute some payments and may contribute others in determining the final child support obligation.
The court must consider the children’s health insurance premium amount for medical, dental, or vision coverage. The only amount that should be included into the child support calculator is the amount spent for the children alone. 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 health insurance, thus, what should be used in the calculator.
The court may consider including other expenses into the child support calculator:
• Childcare Costs: Childcare costs are annualized and acknowledged 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 childcare costs. This credit is only given to parents with a greater amount of parenting time each year, who also have a child care expense. In mediation, if childcare 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 or special schools, but could also cover necessary expenses beyond normal educational expenses. These educational expenses must be mutually agreed upon by the parents.
• Extraordinary Child: Extraordinary expenses are those expenses beyond 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 considers 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. Father makes $7000 per month and Mother makes $3000 per month in gross income. Thus, Father’s share would be 70% and Mothers 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-circular activity expenses and educational costs.
How to Adjust Child Support for Costs Associated with Parenting Time?
The guidelines can consider that each parent will have equal parenting time with the children, but can also consider the exact amount of time each parent has with their children based on the parent’s parenting plan. Of course, when a parent has more time with children, children use more of that parent’s resources, creating more expense for children and this effects the child support amount. It is important to understand how Arizona approaches the idea of that constitutes “time.” Let’s look at the calculations:
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 looking to when routine expenses for the children are spent, such as supplying the children with meals.
For example, Mother picks 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.
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 parenting 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.
Adjustments for Other Costs
As we discussed, certain costs such as medical insurance and childcare result in adjustments to the child support amount.
How to Determine the Child Support Order?
The person with less parenting time may be required to pay additional child support in accordance to the guidelines. 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, 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 considering the best interest of your children.
Parents may both 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 that 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 will 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 so long as the deviation is in the best interest of the children.
What is the Self-Support Reserve Test?
This test is automatically considered into the child support calculator. Basically, the test determines if the assigned child support amount is actually feasible when reviewing each parent 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 the determine whether the assigned child support payment can be paid in relation to the paying parent’s income or at least, minimum wage.
What If We Have Multiple Children with Different Parenting Time Schedules?
Although not very common, sometimes parents may have different parenting time schedule with different children. For example, the daughter may live with Mother fulltime, 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 more than half of the 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 to why the parent lives in another state, the age of the children, the income of both parents, and potentially other 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 is inappropriate or unjust in the particular case;
• The deviation is not contrary to the best interests of the children;
• The court gives written finds or reasons for the deviation;
• The court shows what the amount would have been without deviation; and
• The court shows 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
• All parties have not entered into the agreement until 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 interest of your children.
Can Child Support Be Awarded To a Third-Party Caregiver?
Although very rare, on occasion a child may be in the fulltime care of a third-party caregiver. In this instance, child support should be paid to this caregiver. The guidelines specify that when determining 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 gross income, to determine the child support obligation. We similarly collect this information in mediation through our Mediation Questionnaire, which is a form of voluntary disclosure. The court must determine the child support amount during the process. In mediation, we must also include this child support amount and include a copy of the calculator whenever we file a final Consent Decree.
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 opt and 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 traditionally means that 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 at The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation 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 one or both parent’s responsibility 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 which results in litigation.
To avoid litigation, parents can opt to attend mediation to resolve the modification by mutual agreement and avoid ever going to court about the issue. A new child support calculator 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. However, in mediation we consider allocating the newly increased Child Tax Credits to parents. These negotiable tax credits now allow a credit of up to $2,000 per child. We continue to adjust our approach to these critical issues as laws continue to evolve.
We hope this article has been illuminating as to the factors considered when determining child support in Arizona. As we have discussed, these guidelines apply in both litigation or mediation, but mediation may allow for more productive conversations that result in deviations that better reflect what both parents believe is most fair and in children’s best interests. 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.