Child support in Georgia used to be somewhat simple. You looked at the non-custodial parent's gross income, applied a percentage range based on the number of children, and the judge picked a number inside the range or made a deviation from the range and explained why. Simple does not mean equitable. In 2005, the legislature rewrote the Georgia child support system to try to create a more equitable system. Since 2005, Georgia has used an income share model to allocate the responsibility for support of minor children. As a consequence, it is pretty difficult for a lawyer to give and off-the-cuff opinion of the likely amount of child support. What goes into a modern Georgia child support calculation?
It's About the Children
The first, and most important, factor is to know who has primary physical custody of the minor children. In a simple case, one parent has primary physical custody of all of the minor children and is referred to as the custodial parent, and the other parent is the noncustodial parent. That makes for a fairly straightforward approach to applying the guidelines.
When we talk about primary physical custody, or primary custody, we mean a parent who has physical custody of a minor child for more than 50% of the time.
However, not all custody arrangements are so simple. These cases are lumped together in a category that is referred to as "split parenting." This term occurs when there are two or more children and one party has primary custody of at least one child, and the other party has primary custody of at least one child.
In a split parenting situation, a separate child support worksheet has to be completed for each parent as to the children as to which that parent has primary custody. the court then enters an order determining the obligor, the presumptive amount of support, the actual award of support, how and when amounts are to be paid, and other support responsibilities for each parent.
Another complication can occur when neither party has physical custody of the minor child for more than 50% of the time, when the parties have equal time with the minor child or children. For purposes of the child support guidelines, the statute requires the court to designate one parent as the custodial parent. That parent is specified as the one who would have the lesser support obligation, typically the parent with the lesser income. Some courts will allow each parent's responsibility would be if the other parent were the custodian and offset these amounts, although the proper guidelines approach would be to determine the noncustodial parent's obligation and then make a parenting time deviation (more on this later) to account for the time spent with the noncustodial parent.
An additional complication can occur when there are mixed arrangements. I recently consulted another lawyer about a case where there were four children: the father was to have primary custody of one child, the mother primary custody of another child, and equal parenting time with the other two children. My opinion is that such a situation requires three separate child support worksheets.
It's About the Money
Determination of each party's income is integral to determining an equitable child support amount. In a simple case, the parties each work one job, get paid directly by their employer and receive a W-2 reflecting their annual gross income. In the absence of suppression of income, that is an easy case to calculate the monthly gross income of each party.
Income can come from many sources, however. Salespeople earn commissions. That is income for which a monthly amount would have to be determined based on historical earnings. Overtime and bonuses are all includible. Income from retirement plans, pensions, annuities, and trust are all includible. Unemployment benefits and certain social security benefits are included as well.
Fringe benefits of employment which significantly reduce living expenses of the party can be included as income under Georgia law.
Where a party is out of the work force or is working at a job that pays less than the party's earning ability, the court can impute income to the party to reflect the party's earning ability.
Self-employed income is one of the more challenging situations to deal with when it comes to determining a party's income. The gross receipts of the business must be closely examined, and the expenses claimed must typically be examined closely. Only the reasonable expenses of the business should be considered in determining the party's income for child support purposes.Self-employed persons also receive an adjustment for the additional self-employment taxes that they pay in order to bring them into parity with non-self employed parents.
But What About the Other Children?
It is not unusual for a parent to have a child or children from other relationships. Adjustments are made to monthly gross for both custodial and non-custodial parents when this is the case.
If the parent has been ordered to pay support for the other child or children, then that information is entered on the worksheet an an adjustment is made to the party's gross income is decreased by the amount of the current monthly support obligation. No adjustment is made for required payments on past due child support. This is a mandatory adjustment.
Where there is not a child support order, the court may, but is not required to, make an adjustment for the additional child where certain requirements are met. It must be established that the parent has a legal obligation to support the child (a biological or adopted child, not a stepchild), the child lives in the parent's home, the parent is actually supporting the child, there is not a preexisting child support order for the child, the child is not currently before the court for setting, modifying or enforcing child support. In that situation, a theoretical child support amount is determined for each child, and an adjustment is made to the parent's gross income if the court determines that it is appropriate to make the adjustment.
With Children Come Expenses
The presumptive child support obligation assumes certain expenses are being met in relation to the child. However, not all expenses are built into that presumptive amount. Some expenses whch are not included may be the subject of allowed deviations.
The court should make an adjustment based on the health insurance premium cost for coverage on the minor children. In addition, the court should make an adjustment for child care expenses incurred by each parent which is necessary for the parent's employment, education or vocational training.
The court may make adjustments for certain other expenses related to the minor children including other health-related insurance coverage (dental, vision, etc.), visitation related travel expenses, life insurance coverage, alimony paid (which benefits the child), mortgage payments made by the noncustodial parent for the residence where the child resides, extraordinary educational expenses, extraordinary medical expenses, and allowable special expenses.
Allowable special expenses can include a child's participation summer camp, music or art lessons, travel, school, and sponsored extracurricular activities, such as band, clubs and athletics. However, because some of these expenses are built into the basic child support obligation, the expenses will only be considered to the extent that they exceed seven (7%) of the basic child support obligation. If there are such expenses that exceed the floor amount and the deviation is approved by the fact-finder, the additional expense would be pro-rated between the parents.
The court may also deviate based on a parent's high income, child and dependent care tax credit received by a parent, and other non-specific reasons that the court makes findings to support.
In addition, the court may deviate by a specific dollar amount based on the parenting time allotted to a parent.
In the case of a party with a very low income, the court can deviate downward to take into account the amounts necessary for the parent to survive on the parent's own.
In making these types of adjustments and deviations, the court is obligated to make findings as to why the presumptive amount would be unjust or inappropriate and that the adjustments and deviations would serve the best interests of the minor children. The court must also consider whether the adjustments would seriously impair the custodial parent from maintaining minimally adequate housing and food and clothing for the minor children who are the subject of the order.
Pulling It All Together
The first two pages of the child support worksheet pull all of the relevant information in from the schedules where all of this information is collected.
it shows each parent's monthly gross income and monthly adjusted income. The monthly adjusted incomes are totaled. That amount is referenced against a statutory chart showing the presumptive amount that a household with that total income would spend on rearing the specified number of children. That amount is the basic child support obligation.
That obligation is pro-rated between the parties based on the monthly adjusted incomes. Other mandatory and approved discretionary expenses and adjustments are pro-rated between the party as well to result in a final child support amount.
After these adjustments are made, this calculation produces the child support obligation for the children specified in the worksheet. In the case of mixed arrangements or split parenting, further adjustments may be required.