Changes in the non-custodial parent’s income have a much bigger impact on child support than changes in the custodial parent’s income

Child support can be modified based upon a substantial change of circumstances. Common circumstances that justify a child support modification are when work-related child care expenses drop (typically when the child starts kindergarten or is old enough to no longer need after school care) or when one, but not all, of the children supported by the order emancipates.

However, the most common change of circumstance is when one parent’s income substantially changes. The Supreme Court has reversed the a family court judge who refused to modify child support because it (incorrectly) found a father’s 21% increase in income was not a substantial change of circumstances. Rogers v. Rogers, 343 S.C. 329, 540 S.E.2d 840 (2001). Thus it does not require great changes in income to justify a child support modification.

Lawyers, rarely being math majors, may not have picked up that changes to the non-custodial parent’s income have a vastly greater impact on potential child support modifications than changes in the custodial parent’s income. However, that is the case in South Carolina. This is true because of the two step process the child support guidelines use to determine child support. For the non-custodial parent, any change in income operates in the same direction in reducing or increasing child support. In contrast, for the custodial parent, any change in income works at cross purposes.

For purpose of this blog, the focus will be on the basic support figure, without considering child care or medical insurance expenses. The basic support figure is determined from a table promulgated by the South Carolina Department of Social Services, Child Support Enforcement Division. The 2014 table is below.

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The basic support obligation is determined by combining both parents’ incomes (after deducting for prior support obligations and providing credit for other biological minor children residing within that parent’s home) and looking at the applicable row and column for income level and number of children being supported under the order. As the parties’ combined income goes up, the basic support obligation goes up. As the parties’ combined income goes down, the basic support obligation goes down.

The second step of the process is to determine the parent’s relatives shares of income. If the non-custodial parent makes 75% of the combined income (s)he will pay the other parent 75% of the basic support obligation as child support. If the percentage is 35%, (s)he will pay the other parent 35%.

When a non-custodial parent’s income goes up, the basic support obligation goes up and that parent’s relative share of income goes up [for simplicity and illustration purposes, all these scenarios assume all other figures remain unchanged from the prior order setting child support]. Thus, the non-custodial parent will pay a higher percentage of a greater amount. When a non-custodial parent’s income goes down, the basic support obligation goes down and that parent’s relative share of income goes down. Thus, the non-custodial parent will pay a smaller percentage of a lower amount.

In contrast, when a custodial parent’s income goes up, the non-custodial parent’s relative share of income will decrease but the combined support obligation will increase. When a custodial parent’s income goes down, the non-custodial parent’s relative share of income will increase but the combined support obligation will decrease. Changes to the custodial parent’s income work at cross purposes.

As a specific example, assume parents supporting one child with non-custodial father having an income of $3,000 and custodial mother having an income of $2,000. The combine support obligation is $798 and father’s 60% share is $478.80. If father’s income goes up $1,000, the combined support obligation is now $856 and father’s 2/3rds share is $570.67. If father’s income goes down $1,000, the combined support obligation is $699 and father’s 50% share is $349.50.

In this same scenario, if mother’s income goes down $1,000, the combined support obligation is now $699, but father’s share is 75% so support goes to $524.25. If mother’s income goes up $1,000, the combined support obligation is now $856 but father’s share is only 50% so his support obligation is $428.

In these scenarios, father’s income going up $1,000 causes his support obligation to increase $91.87 but mother’s income going down $1,000 only causes his support obligation to increase $45.45. Father’s income going down $1,000 causes his support obligation to decrease $129.30 but mother’s income going up $1,000 only causes his support to decrease $50.80. Changes to the non-custodial parent’s income have double or greater impact than changes to the custodial parent’s income.

What this means in practice is that any significant increase in the non-custodial parent’s income likely justifies the custodial parent seeking a child support increase [assuming there haven’t been other changes that might decrease child support]. Any significant decrease in the non-custodial parent’s income likely justifies that parent seeking a child support decrease [again, assuming there haven’t been other changes that might increase child support]. However a significant increase in the custodial parent’s income might not justify the non-custodial parent seeking a child support increase and a significant decrease in a custodial parent’s income might not justify that parent seeking a child support decrease.

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  • Nancy Jo Thomason

    Did you try the math if the custodial parent is the one making more money? I think your analysis is only true if the non-custodial parent makes more money.

    • Let’s do it. Assume mom makes $3,000 and dad makes $2,000. Dad’s support obligation is 40% of $798, or $319.20. Assume dad’s income increases to $3,000. He now pays 50% of $856, or $428. Assume, instead, that mom’s income drops to $2,000. He now pays 50% of $699, or $349.50. Dad’s increase increases child support by $108.80. Mom’s decrease increases child support by $78.50. Again changes in dad’s income have a bigger effect.

      Assume dad’s income decreases to $1,000. Now he pays 25% of $699, or $174.75. Assume mom’s income increases to $4,000. Now he pays 1/3rd of $856 or $285.33. Dad’s decrease decreases support by $144.45. Mom’s increase decreases child support by $33.87. Again changes in dad’s income have a bigger effect.

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