Child support disputes are often contentious during divorce. The child support guidelines provide a schedule and formula that create a presumptive child support range for income levels up to a combined net weekly income of $4,000 or more. The framework is less defined for setting the presumptive level of child support for high-income households. Courts determine obligations in these matters on a case-by case-basis in compliance with the underlying purposes and principles of the guidelines.
A primary goal in determining support is stability for the children. Connecticut law seeks to help ensure that children receive the same percentage of overall parental income as they would have received had the parents remained together in a single household. When a marriage breaks down, one household budget essentially becomes two separate budgets for the parents. The Connecticut child support guidelines are fashioned with the intent that any increase in expenses of maintaining separate lives for the parents are not borne by the children. At the same time, the law recognizes that as income in households increase, the proportion of overall income necessary to provide for the needs of children decreases.
Remaining Focused On The Details At Each Level Of Dispute Resolution
In many ways, courts view financial orders as a sort of tapestry where financial components are interwoven with each other throughout the structure of the orders. See e.g., Fox v. Fox, 152 Conn.App. 611, 640 (2014). Child support orders, however, impact the children—not just the divorcing parents. The child support guidelines and their underlying principles act to limit the discretion of the court in calculating child support, absent a specific finding that the presumptive support obligations under the guidelines would be inappropriate or inequitable, based on the needs of the children or the ability of the obligor to pay.
Courts have broad discretion in crafting financial orders in dissolution proceedings. Households that have complex financial structures, multiple sources of income, and significant assets complicate the financial structures that courts evaluate across the mosaic of financial orders. Courts often base financial awards in complex dissolution proceedings upon the earning capacity of a litigant. They may impute income in appropriate circumstances, after considering a variety of factors, such as past employment, the vocational skills of the litigant, future employability, as well as age and health of the litigant. This often occurs when conventional methods of determining income are inadequate in the individual case.
Connecticut child support regulations, however, do not authorize courts to evaluate the earning capacity of a litigant in determining the presumptive level of child support. The guidelines use the actual income of the parents in the formula for calculating the presumptive child support obligation. Courts must first determine the presumptive obligation under the guidelines, which is presumed to be equitable. If, after determining the presumptive level of support the court specifically finds the presumptive level is inequitable, the court may deviate from the guidelines. Here, imputed income based upon earning capacity may be considered. However, the court must provide an “explanation as to why the guidelines are inequitable or inappropriate and why the deviation is necessary to meet the needs of the child.” Misthopoulos v. Misthopoulos, 297 Conn. 358 (2010).
Child support should not be used as a masked form of alimony or denied as necessary resources for a child with extraordinary needs. In complex dissolution proceedings, it is critical to remain mindful of the purposes, goals and principles that apply to each distinct aspect of the overall litigation. Sophisticated matrimonial lawyers prepare a detailed and strategic plan beginning on Day One to present in negotiations, mediation or trial. A comprehensive plan should address every detail at the individual level, without losing sight of the big picture of protecting rights throughout the dispute resolution process.