Every day in hospitals and birthing centers throughout America, parents are delighted to welcome their babies to the world. When the little one is ready, parents and child go home together, as a family. All is right with the world. And sometimes that's where the story ends.
All too often, though, the story has a more difficult ending. Relationships between adults can be stormy and complex. Married parents divorce, and unmarried parents break up. Regardless of who's at fault for the end of the relationship, both parents have an ongoing obligation to financially support their children. But because every situation is a little different, one parent ("the paying parent") will usually have to pay more child support than the other ("the receiving parent").
Sometimes paying parents feel like they got the short end of the stick when the relationship ended, and they try to hurt the other parent by skimping on child support and trying to avoid opportunities to work. But the reality is that the receiving parent is only performing an act of collection for the children. Child support money does not belong to the receiving parent. It belongs to the children, and can only be spent on their needs.
When parents try to avoid paying child support, the courts sometimes respond by "imputing" income to them. This means that the court will issue a child support order that assumes the paying parent is working at ordinary earning levels, even if they're choosing not to work and they're not earning a dime.
This article will explain when and how courts impute income for child support purposes in Mississippi. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
When a relationship ends, the couple has the opportunity to sit down, with or without an attorney, and try to negotiate the financial terms of the break-up. But when a couple can't agree on how much child support has to be paid, a judge will take control and make the decision for them.
Mississippi is a guidelines child support state. This means that the paying parent (called the "absent parent" in Mississippi's laws) has to pay a certain percentage of adjusted gross income to the receiving parent, depending on the number of children the couple has together, as reflected on the table on this page.
A parent may try to rebut the guidelines to obtain either a decrease or an increase in the guidelines award. For more information about what's included in adjusted gross income and how child support is calculated in Mississippi, please see Child Support in Mississippi (Nolo).
Child support orders can be changed when there is a "substantial and material change of circumstances," meaning that something big has happened to change the income, expenses, and lives of the parents and the child. Either parent can come back to court and ask for a modification (a change) of the child support order if something major happens, like the loss of a job or the birth of another baby. Keep in mind, though, that the modification still has to be in line with the guideline percentages.
From time to time, paying parents fail to live up to their financial responsibility to their children. This generally happens in one of two ways:
When these situations exist, Mississippi judges will impute income to the paying parent (meaning, the judge will assign the amount that the court thinks the paying parent could have earned) when they calculate guidelines child support. Income is imputed when a parent makes a voluntary choice that results in the reduction of income. By including imputed income, the courts ensure that the paying parent's ability to contribute financially to the child's life is reflected in the final order.
But what if a paying parent is involuntarily unemployed or involuntarily underemployed? For example, a paying parent's employer might issue company-wide layoffs or reduce the paying parent's hourly wages or schedule. In these cases, the unemployment or underemployment is not in bad faith, so the court won't impute income. But if this happens to you, be proactive and make sure you keep records about your previous job and your new job search efforts. That way you can prove to the court that you're trying hard to work and this situation isn't your fault.
When the court totals up the amount of income that a paying parent could and should have been earning and includes it in a child support order, the court is "imputing" income to the paying parent. The judge believes that the parent is capable of paying child support and should have had earned wages or a salary in the imputed amount. Imputed income is assigned to a parent who doesn't actually have the money, but who the court believes should be responsible anyway.
It's important to know that in Mississippi, a court can't impute income unless there's evidence that the paying parent acted in bad faith. "Bad faith" means that the paying parent took some voluntary action that made the parent's financial situation worse. For example, if a parent engaged in workplace behavior that was so extreme and outrageous that the employer had to fire the parent, that would be an act of bad faith.
Bad faith can also mean that a paying parent consciously refuses to fulfill a duty or contractual obligation, as in the case of Bailey v. Bailey, where the Mississippi Supreme Court held that a voluntary resignation of employment constitutes bad faith, even if it's to stay home and care for another child. 724 So.2d 335, 338 (Miss. 1998).
Mississippi Department of Human Services, Division of Child Support Enforcement
Bailey v. Bailey, 724 So.2d 335 (Miss. 1998)
Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-101
Miss. Code Ann. § 43-19-103