Amaral & Associates, P.C. - Divorce, Family Law

Calculating Child Support When One Parent is Unemployed or Underemployed

In Massachusetts, child support is calculated based upon the Child Support Guidelines. The Child Support Guidelines use a mathematical calculation to determine a child support obligation based upon each parent’s gross weekly income, as well as the number of children for the child support order. When these numbers are entered into the formula, a number is produced, which is the weekly child support obligation.

However, when one parent is unemployed or underplayed, the child support obligation is likely to be lower than if the Child Support Guidelines are calculated when that parent is fully employed at a level consistent with their earning capacity. This can cause frustration for the parent who is fully employed, but that parent is not left without recourse. In Massachusetts, if a parent is unemployed or underemployed, the other parent can seek to attribute or impute income to that parent.

When income is attributed to a parent who is unemployed or underemployed, what happens is a reasonable wage is used in that parent’s column of the Child Support Guidelines to calculate the child support obligation. The determination of what a reasonable wage is for one parent is based upon that parent’s prior work history, educational background, work experience and skills, prior earning capacity, and what a typical person would earn in that parent’s field. Income can be attributed to both the payor parent and the recipient parent.

For example, if a very successful physician suddenly quits his job and then starts working at a fast food restaurant, then the court can choose to overlook the physician’s income at the fast food restaurant, and rather, use income consistent with what the physician was previously earning, or what a physician of comparable skill would earn in the current market. Thus, simply put, a parent cannot just intentionally remain unemployed or underemployed to avoid a child support obligation.

Income may also be attributed for purposes of alimony obligation, as well. The process is very similar to attribution of income with child support.

Attribution of income arguments can be made at any phase of a child support case. This includes when the child support obligation is initially established, when it is subsequently modified, or during a contempt proceeding.

However, Massachusetts law understands that, particularly in economically challenging times, a parent may be unemployed or underemployed through no fault of their own, but rather as a result of the tough economy. Thus, the Child Support Guidelines that went into effect in August 2013 also require the court to consider the availability of employment for the unemployed/underemployed parent in the specific profession that a parent is seeking attribution for.

Calculation of child support can be complex and confusing. It is not necessarily as simple as entering numbers into the Child Support Guidelines equation. Every parent should use the assistance of counsel, to ensure they are able to maximize the calculation of child support.

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