During a divorce, many issues are intertwined, and the resolution of one is issue is in many cases, dependent upon the other. This is perhaps nowhere more true than with respect to the issues of child custody and child support. It is only understandable that regardless of the custody arrangement that the parties ultimately choose, parents want to ensure that they can adequately support their children as part of that arrangement. While the law requires that parents continue to support their children following a divorce, the custody arrangement that the parties choose (or that is ordered by the court) may have a significant effect on the amount of support that is to be provided.
Although divorce may end a marriage, parenthood is forever. And regardless of how they may feel toward their ex-spouse, most parents truly want to support their children – out of love, and not simply because it is legally required. As a result, child support is often one of the less contentious issues that couples negotiate during a divorce.
As most parents know, child support is a monthly payment, typically made by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent to provide for the reasonable needs of the couple’s children. Under North Carolina law, this includes the biological children of the marriage, any children that the couple adopted together, and any children born to a relationship between the parties.
A child support obligation is usually long-lasting, until the children reach the age of eighteen or are otherwise emancipated. As a result, it is more than worthwhile for most couples to truly spend the time thinking through what child support and custody arrangements might work best for your family – and the two are distinctly intertwined. In North Carolina, there are two primary ways that child support can be determined – either in an agreement, which the parents negotiate and enter into together, or by a court, based upon the state statutory guidelines. In this chapter, we’ll discuss both of those options – what they entail, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and how your custody arrangement might affect those determinations.
Addressing Support by Agreement
As with almost all issues the must be resolved during the divorce process, child support can be determined by the parties by agreement. If you and your spouse are capable of communicating effectively and with an open mind, and are committed to working together toward the best resolution of your issues for your family, addressing support obligations in a separation agreement offers many advantages.
Choosing to set the support obligation yourselves provides more leeway to determine what works best for your family and your lifestyle. You can ensure that the agreement fits your family’s unique needs – even if those needs are different than those which are normally provided for under the legal guidelines. For example, in a separation agreement, the parties may decide that they want to extend support payments beyond the age of eighteen, address the obligation to pay for private school or college expenses, make payments on a particular timeline that works best for the parties, or implement any other number of specific conditions that work well for their particular circumstances.
A second advantage of choosing to set the support obligation in an agreement is that not only do you have the flexibility to determine the specifics of support in the first place – you also have the freedom and flexibility to make changes to the agreement as your life situation changes. Of course, both parties will need to be in agreement about those changes, but as long as that is the case, the agreement can be rewritten or modified at any time to ensure that the support provided continues to work best for the family’s life circumstances.
Yet another advantage of entering into an agreement is that generally, doing so means that couples will spare themselves a great deal of the expense and stress that they would likely have incurred by choosing to battle an issue out in court. For the most part during divorce, with respect to all issues, choosing to work together toward an agreement that works well for everyone involved is less contentious, and less costly. The effort is well worth it.
Clearly, then, there are many advantages to choosing to address child support by agreement. The question then becomes, how to draft an agreement that best fits your family’s circumstances? If two parents do decide to enter into an agreement regarding child support, it can be helpful to consider the following advice when negotiating child support payments:
Remember, that the ultimate goal of your negotiations is to ensure that your children have the same financial support that they would have received if you had remained married. Spend the necessary time talking with your attorney in detail about your children’s lives – their needs, their regular expenses, their health issues, and the lifestyle they are accustomed to. Be honest with your attorney about your income, your expenses, and your goals for your children’s future. Most importantly, go into the negotiations with an open mind. Be willing to communicate openly and compromise if necessary, but don’t hesitate to stand up calmly and confidently for the things that are truly important to you.
Court-Ordered Child Support
As with all issues in a divorce, if the couple is unable to come to an agreement on their own regarding child support, a court will make the determination for them. Sometimes, depending upon the dynamics involved in a relationship and the animosity that may be present between the parties, having a court decide the key issues is simply the best choice. While child support can seem like a complex issue to those unfamiliar with the legal system, there are fortunately detailed guidelines in place to help courts make the determination as to the amount of support that is appropriate in any given case.
The North Carolina Child Support Guidelines provide guidance to the court regarding support calculations, and can help parents roughly plan for and estimate what amounts they might be expected to pay. These guidelines are based on a shared income formula. The idea behind this method of calculating support is that child support should be an obligation that the parents share jointly – that is, that the children essentially receive the same percentage of their parents’ income that they would have received if the parents had remained married. Also factored into the amount of support that is ultimately awarded is the custody arrangement that the parties have, as we will discuss below.
As a court makes a determination with respect to support, a number of factors will be considered. Some of those factors include how much time the child spends in each parent’s household, which parent has primary custody, the income of each parent, and each parent’s ability to pay support. Other factors that the court might consider include:
Though in the vast majority of cases, courts use the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines in determining support obligations, there are some situations in which courts will deviate from those guidelines. Some of these circumstances include:
In those special situations, courts will typically make support determinations on the basis of the child’s actual needs and the expenses associated with those needs, as opposed to utilizing the formula set forth in the guidelines.
In the majority of cases, however, families who have child support obligations determined by the court will find that the court determines those obligations using the state support guidelines. These guidelines apply statewide, and are revised at least every four years to adequately reflect cost-of-living increases. Typically, there are three worksheets used for calculating support under the guidelines:
As indicated by the differing worksheets, child support, when awarded by a court, is directly affected by the custody arrangement that the parties have. If the parents have an arrangement where one parent is the primary physical custodian of the children and the other parent has less than 123 nights with the children, the parent who has primary custody will receive the maximum amount of support available under the guidelines. On the other hand, if the parents have a split custody arrangement (a somewhat rare arrangement where one parent has primary custody of on child and the other parent has primary custody of the other child), child support may be drastically reduced, or may not be awarded at all, as each parent would be responsible for the day-to-day expenses of the child that lived in their home. In a third scenario, if the parties essentially have shared custody – meaning that each parent spends at least 123 nights with the children each year, the amount of child support awarded might decrease or increase depending upon the amount of time that each parent spends with the child. It is also important to keep in mind that even if you do have equal amounts of time with your children, if one parent makes significantly more than the other, support may still be awarded, because child support is intended to be paid proportionately to income.
Clearly, the custody arrangement between the parties will have a significant effect on the amount of support awarded. Moreover, while the guidelines are generally adopted and used to calculate support, a court may choose to look beyond the guidelines and set a different amount if the particular and unique needs of the children require it. A court always has the obligation to do what is in the best interests of the children, and at times, that means looking outside of the guidelines at the whole picture of the child’s life to make a determination.
Regardless of whether the court ultimately determines the support obligation or the parties choose to decide it by agreement, after it has been determined, North Carolina law provides that one spouse can pay the support amount directly to the other at the required times, if that arrangement works well for both parties. In other circumstances, however, an intermediary might be helpful, and in those cases, child support can be paid through the North Carolina Child Support Centralized Collections (NCCSCC), which will then send the support collected to the receiving parent, either through direct deposit or via a debit card. Some couples choose this option in order to have a document record of all support payments which are made from one parent to the other, if a dispute should ever arise.
Beyond the Dollar Figure – A Look at the Emotions Behind Child Support and Child Custody
Regardless of whether the support amount is awarded by the court or decided upon by agreement, it is important not to underestimate the level of emotion that might be involved in these decisions, and the reactions that those emotions might cause. So much of divorce is emotional, and perhaps nowhere is this more true than with respect to issues involving children.
Divorce is a stressful time, and even when the divorce is over and the dust settles, emotions can still run high. It is important for all parties to remember that regardless of the ending of a marriage, the obligation to parent together for the good of your children remains. It is important, if you are the parent who is responsible for making child support payments, that you do so on time, and in full. Never withhold payment to “punish” the other parent – after all, the ones who are really being punished are your children.
On the other side of the coin, if you are the parent who is the primary custodian and the other parent falls behind on their child support payments, do not withhold visitation privileges until the support is paid, for the purpose of “getting back” at the other parent. While this may be tempting, and while it may feel good in the moment, you are harming your children in the long run, and potentially placing yourself in a position to incur legal consequences as well. If you are not regularly receiving the support that is due, let child support enforcement authorities address the issue of non-payment, and speak to your attorney about possible remedies.
Ultimately, when it comes to child support, the hope is that parents will always continue to do what is right and best for their children, regardless of their emotions or negative feelings toward the other parent. Both parents need to be realistic and practical about the custody arrangement they choose, and the support obligation they decide upon. Doing so is ultimately better for everyone in the end.
Without question, the “nuts and bolts” of the child support process and its interplay with the custody arrangement that the parties have might seem confusing at first glance, and this is certainly understandable, particularly for those who are not legal professionals and who are unfamiliar with the process. The good news, though, is that an attorney who is well-versed in the law and who frequently handles divorce cases will be able to guide you through the process, and advise you as to how the law might apply to your particular circumstances. The value of such legal advice cannot be overstated, particularly when it comes to something as important as matters involving your children. Together, you can reach the resolution that is best for your family.
 As a basic example, if, when the parents were married, they spent $1,000 per month on their children, and one spouse made 70% of the combined income, that spouse would be responsible for 70% of the support that the child would receive, or $700. Of course, there will be extraordinary expenses that may also factor into the calculation, but the idea, generally, is that parents continue to support their children in the same manner and in the same proportion as they would have prior to the divorce.
If you would like to arrange a child custody and child support consultation with an experienced child custody lawyer in Huntersville, NC, contact Adkins Law.