Divorcing parents likely are in disagreement on many issues. But there are two things they usually can agree on: (i) that they have great kids, and (ii) that kids are expensive!
One of the most frequently asked questions I get from both the parent paying child support and the parent receiving it is: “What are child support payments intended to cover?” There is not a simple answer to this question because there is a wide variation in the economic circumstances of families going through the divorce process.
The District of Columbia and Maryland have passed legislation establishing “child support guidelines” which apply presumptively to establish the amount of child support to be paid. The most important factor in establishing the amount of child support (although there are others) is the respective incomes of the parents.
The District of Columbia Child Support Guideline states an important principle relevant to our question: that child support is designed to meet the children’s basic needs as well as to provide for additional needs beyond the basic needs level. “Basic needs” generally include the following day-to-day expenses for children:
- Housing (including rent/mortgage and utilities)
- Medical care
In addition, work-related child care costs (which include summer camp if necessary to enable the parent to work), health insurance, and extraordinary medical expenses are factored directly into the amount of child support calculated under the jurisdiction’s child support guidelines.
However, as many parents will point out, the above list is far from comprehensive. What about extracurricular activities and equipment, school supplies, private school tuition, tutoring, SAT prep classes, vacations, car insurance, religious education costs, college, computers, phones and gifts (to name a few)? Are these expenses subsumed in the basic child support payment or are they “extra” expenses that are paid in addition to child support?
How these needs of the children which are beyond the basics will be met depends on whether the issue of child support is being resolved by mutual agreement of the parents or by order of the court.
When the court issues a child support order, the remedies which the court may utilize are limited. If the parents’ combined incomes fall within the child support guidelines, the court will determine the amount of child support derived from the child support guidelines and set a specific amount of child support, and the custodial parent will not necessarily be required to contribute to any additional expenses. In situations when parents’ combined incomes exceed the highest level ($240,000 in the District of Columbia and $180,000 in Maryland), the court has greater discretion in setting the amount of the award.
However, when the issue of child support is resolved by the parents through an out-of-court process (negotiation, mediation or the Collaborative Process), the payment of the children’s expenses can be detailed in an agreement which has almost limitless opportunities for creativity and flexibility. Parents can specify the “extras” which they both want for their children. They can agree that certain expenses will be divided between them in a particular way. And they can address changes in priorities as the children get older (i.e., no longer need child care but participate in sports, arts, educational enrichment activities, etc.)
The important take-away for parents grappling with child support issues in their divorce is to think carefully about how they want to handle “the basics” and “the extras” so as to ensure, as best as possible given their means and reasonable ability to pay, that their children’s needs are met.