A parent’s financial obligation to support his or her children is a well-established mainstay in the United States. For parents who do not live together, the issue of child support can be a contentious battle fought in and out of court. The kids are usually caught in the crossfire, with parents challenging both the amount that’s paid and how it’s spent.
Sometimes, the paying parent will try to beat a support order by purposely lowering his or her income. Massachusetts courts are very familiar with this gambit and have specific rules and procedures, such as the imputation of income, to address these situations.
If your particular circumstances seem complicated, you should contact a licensed Massachusetts family law attorney.
For the typical child support order, Massachusetts applies both parents’ incomes to a formula to determine how much the noncustodial parent should be paying to the custodial parent. Massachusetts state law defines what can be counted as income, such as wages, commissions, bonuses, earnings from self-employment, etc. For more information on how child support is calculated go to Child Support in Massachusetts (Nolo).
Typically, the noncustodial parent (or paying parent) will pay child support to the custodial parent (or receiving parent) on behalf of the child.
For most folks, determining the noncustodial parent’s income is pretty straightforward. However, if the noncustodial parent has lost employment or has a new job that pays considerably less than prior employment, he or she may ask the court to order a lower amount of child support. Normally, the custodial parent will question whether the income reduction is justified.
The court will not automatically assume that a reduction in earnings is a deliberate ploy to avoid child support. It’s up to the custodial parent to prove that the noncustodial parent is trying to avoid the full effect of the court-ordered support.
If the noncustodial parent’s loss of employment was beyond his or her control, the law allows for a reduction of child support. However, if the custodial parent can show that the noncustodial parent’s reduction in income was intentionaland/or within his or her control, the court may very likely rule that the loss of income was voluntary and therefore avoidable. The judge will either refuse to reduce the child support order or will "impute income." When a judge imputes income, the noncustodial parent’s income is set at what he or she should be earning, not what he or she is actually earning.
This may sound unfair at first glance. However, courts will not punish children for their parents’ misdeeds. When a noncustodial parent remains unemployed or earns less than his or her full potential, the children will not have a standard of living that their noncustodial parent should be able to provide. Courts can remedy this by imputing income and encouraging parents to get back to work, so they can pay an appropriate amount of support.
When deciding whether to impute income, a court must be fully informed as to what caused the loss of income.
There are some cases where it's painfully obvious that a parent has voluntarily reduced income, including when a parent quits a high-paying and/or stable job to volunteer, travel, pursue educational goals or take some time off. These excuses are generally insufficient to convince a judge that you should be relieved of your duty to provide child support to your child. Instead, a judge will likely impute the income the parent was making (or could make) in calculating child support.
Then there are those cases where the noncustodial parent may not have planned to lose the job, but acted in such a way as to cause a job loss. The noncustodial parent may have poor work performance or may have disobeyed company rules. Whether the employer calls the job loss a lay-off or a firing will have no bearing on what actually happened. If the custodial parent can prove that the noncustodial parent’s behavior caused the job loss and was voluntary, the court will usually impute income and base the child support order on what the noncustodial parent was earning in his or her last job.
Alternatively, a noncustodial parent may be underemployed. He or she may seek work that pays considerably less than what was earned in the past. For example, if the noncustodial parent has a history in one line of work and then shifts to a lower paying job for no apparent reason, there may be strong evidence that the noncustodial parent is voluntarily “underemployed.” The custodial parent may request that the court impute income and base child support on the noncustodial parent’s previous earnings or earning potential, not on his or her actual earnings.
To determine whether a noncustodial parent is working to his or her full potential, a judge will consider the following factors:
It is the custodial parent’s task to show that the noncustodial parent’s earning potential is greater than the actual earnings.
Courts are not likely to impute income to parents that have suffered a legitimate job loss and have made diligent and good faith efforts to find replacement work. Similarly, if a parent is suffering from a physical or mental disability that makes working impossible, courts will not impute income.
For noncustodial parents who have involuntarily lost a job or have experienced a legitimate reduction in income, it is very important to establish that the loss or reduction in income was beyond your control. Make sure to document how the job was lost and provide written proof that the job loss was not your fault.
It is also crucial to show that you are really trying to find a new job. If you are using the internet to search, print out all applications or emails you send in. Provide the names and contact info of all employment agencies you have contacted. Make sure you print out any responses you receive from your on-line efforts. It is always better to have more documentation that you ever think you will need so you can prove that your income loss is involuntary.
The state law that governs child support can be found in the Massachusetts General Laws at MGL chapter 119, chapter 208, chapter 209 and chapter 209C.