This article provides information on how child support is calculated in Massachusetts. If you have questions about child support, you should contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.
In Massachusetts, both parents have a duty to support their child. Typically, however, only the noncustodial parent makes child support payments. The noncustodial parent is the parent who lives outside the child’s primary home. The custodial parent, who has primary care of the child, remains responsible for child support too, but the law assumes that this parent spends the required amount directly on the child.
The amount of support depends on a set of factors that make up the child support guidelines. Parents can agree to pay more than the guideline amount with court approval, but rarely less. In any case, a court can deviate from the guidelines, meaning, adjust the amount of support either up or down if a judge determines that it is in the child’s best interest to do so.
The Massachusetts Courts provide a child support guidelines worksheet and instructions to help you estimate your fair share of child support. You will also need to enter an amount from the child support guidelines chart, which is a fee schedule based on the parents’ combined income.
The worksheet requires the available weekly incomes of both parents to determine a baseline of support, which is split proportionally between the parents based on their respective incomes. To this amount, parents must also cover the child’s health insurance and educational costs. A court may also order payment for extra curricular activities like summer camp or private school if it is in the child’s best interest and the parents can afford it.
Available income is gross income minus deductions for childcare costs, health, vision, and dental insurance costs, and any support paid to a former spouse or child not covered by the current request.
Gross income is income from almost every source. For a list of what to include and what you can leave out, see pages three through five of the child support guidelines. Notice that unreported income, or money made “under the table,” is also included. Even if it is impossible to know the exact amount of unreported income, a court can impute a reasonable amount. Also, a parent can’t avoid child support payments by failing to work. In that case, a court may assign a potential income that this parent should be making.
The guidelines use different calculations depending on how the parents share custody or parenting time. There is a general formula for computing payments, but it's based on an assumption that the child has a primary residence with one parent and spends roughly one-third of the time with the other parent. If parenting time is less than one-third with the non-residential parent, the court may increase the amount of support.
Where the parents share equal time, or close to it, there is a different process. The worksheet must be completed twice – once for each parent as the Recipient – the one who receives support – resulting in two weekly support amounts. The parent with the lower weekly support amount receives the difference of the two results. For example, if Parent A has a weekly support amount of $500 and Parent B’s weekly support amount is $400, then the difference is $100 paid to Parent B.
Where a parent’s minimum amount of time spent with the child is more than one-third, but less than half, then complete the worksheet first with the parent who has the most time (more than 50%) as the Recipient. Then you have to do the calculation again as if the parents shared equal time (as in the paragraph immediately above). The average between the base support (the first calculation) and the second, shared calculation will be the amount paid to the Recipient.
Where parents split custody, meaning, one child lives with Parent A and a second child lives with Parent B, then the calculations are the same as for sharing equal time.
Once you have completed the appropriate calculation, the outcome will be an amount of support that the state presumes to be appropriate for your child. Sometimes, however, the total amount or the way it is divided is unfair. Before the order is in place, you can still ask the court to adjust the amount, but you will have to show that it is in the child’s best interest.
Courts consider the following when deciding to adjust support:
Once a child support order has been in place for more than three years, you may still be able to change it if any of the following apply:
If it has been less than three years, then a mere inconsistency between the current order and the guidelines, is not enough. The parent requesting the modification must also show a substantial change in circumstances.
Be aware, however, that if a court deviated from the guidelines in making your initial order, the reason for the deviation must still exist and, it must still be in the child’s best interest to maintain the deviation when you request the modification. Otherwise, the usual guidelines amount will result unless it would be unjust or inappropriate for other circumstances.
Also, parents who agree to a change can file a joint petition for modification of child support judgment. Unless a judge has questions or concerns about this new plan, there will not be a hearing. The court will decide whether to modify the current order purely on the parents’ joint petition (and supporting documents).
In addition to the links above, see the Massachusetts Department of Revenue website for other tools to establish, modify, or enforce child support. For forms, go to the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court Department Forms Page. You can also read the law on child support in the Massachusetts General Laws Section 208-28.