David B Weden, III
This article is a comparative analysis of the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines. The analysis has been prepared to provide a benchmark in the upcoming review of Massachusetts child support guidelines.
The analysis compares Massachusetts guidelines with other states, in terms of child support orders produced by guideline formulae, and the methodology used in calculations. The analysis also compares Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines to Federally published statistics for Family Expenditures on Children.
The information presented here demonstrates that for situations involving one child the Massachusetts guidelines produce a support obligation that is far higher than other states, especially in higher income demographic segments. In these same situations, the Mass Guidelines are also higher than the amount suggested by federal guideline statistics on expenditures for raising children. Finally, it is shown that the formula behaves dynamically contrary to all known previous studies on family spending on children.
Implementation of child support guidelines began in the 1980s. In 1984, the Federal Government passed legislation requiring all states to establish child support guidelines. In 1987, additional legislation was passed requiring family court judges to make a legal “finding” to vary from guidelines. Findings are a very high legal standard that is hard to achieve, and thus the guidelines are adhered to in virtually all situations.
Each state has it’s own guideline formula to determine how much child support should be paid in a given situation. The author had heard that Massachusetts has the highest child support guidelines in the nation. Some attorneys interviewed by the author as background for this article bolstered this point of view. However, each state seems to have their own constituency of child support payers that consider their state to have the highest guidelines.
In the upcoming months, Massachusetts will review their child support guidelines, to ensure adequacy and fairness. The goal of this article is to provide a benchmark by which the state can better understand its position with the rest of the country.
The article draws on data published over a five year period, 1995-1999. Although this may seem like a long period from which to base one article, it should be remembered that child support guidelines, and other information used for this article, have remained very stable over this period. The Massachusetts guidelines have remained virtually unchanged in over a decade.
The article makes numerous comparisons between spousal parties. Parties are referred to as “Non-Custodial Parent” (“NCP”) and “Custodial Parent” (“CP”), rather than “mother” and “father”. This convention was used because mothers and fathers can assume the role of either non-custodial or custodial parent.
This article would not have been possible without the generous review of some noteworthy experts[i].
Child Support Guidelines Formulae
In most cases child support guidelines were developed from two popular pre-existing models[ii]. They are described briefly here.
1. Income Shares — This is the most widely used formula, currently adopted by 75% of states[iii]. Under the income shares model, an amount of total child support is determined based on the age of the children and the combined income of the parents. Certain states use net income, while others use gross income. Support amounts are usually stated in tables that are incorporated into the statute. Each parent’s percentage share of their combined income is then determined and applied against the total annual support amount in the guidelines table. The Non-custodial parent’s share of the total child support amount is considered their child support obligation to be paid to the custodial parent[iv].
2. Gross Income — The Gross Income method stipulates a percentage that is applied to the gross income of the non-custodial parent to determine the child support obligation. The percentage used can vary depending on the age of the children, income of the parents, and other factors.
Each state has their own customized features in their application of child support guidelines. Massachusetts uses a variation of the Gross Income method that adjusts for custodial parent income over $15,000. Some Gross income states use flat percentages, while others vary the percentage according to income.
Child support guidelines allow for variations in parental income, age of children, and number of children, to address specific family situations. The share of income between parents is usually considered in child support formulae, in both the Income Shares and Gross Income models. To compute child support, assumptions must be made for each of these variables.
Child support is separate and distinct from alimony. Alimony is tax deductible to the payer and taxable to the recipient. Child support is not deductible and is not taxable. Alimony is ordered in cases where spousal support is required. By definition, child support can only be ordered with the presence of children. Cases often involve both alimony and child support.
The child support order produced from each state’s formula can vary dramatically based on the assumptions in any one case. Under a given set of assumptions, a state’s formula might produce a result close to the median for all states. However, when one assumption is changed, that state may become an “outlier” and appear extreme. Assumptions for the number of children and level of parental income greatly affect how states compare to one another, and how they compare to child rearing cost statistics.[v]
Available Studies on State Rankings of Child Support Guideline Orders
There are very few studies comparing child support guidelines across the nation. However, the following reports were located by the author. Each compares child support guidelines for all states:
1. Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines: The Hidden Agenda; 1995; Dr. Henry M. Fassler
2. Interstate Comparisons of Child Support Orders Using State Guidelines; 1998; Maureen A. Pirog, Professor of Public Policy Analysis, Indiana University
3. A Comparison of Child Support Awards Calculated Under States’ Child Support Guidelines with Expenditures on Children Calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; 1999; Laura W. Morgan, Senior Attorney for Family Law, National Legal Research Group, and Mark C. Lino, Senior Economist, U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Although the author cannot vouch for the integrity of all calculations of each study, a spot check and review was conducted. The author sent away for and obtained child support guidelines for all 50 states. A review of the calculations indicates that calculations for all three studies are consistent with guidelines obtained from each state, meaning that the author could at least come close to the obligation amount determined.
Each study calculated child support obligations by state, under various family scenarios. Each study had its advantages and drawbacks, based on their differing methodologies.
The Pirog study was not ideally suited to the focus of this article in that it dealt mostly with changes in child support guidelines over time, and was not focused on specifically comparing states child support orders (despite the title of the report). Additionally, the study only considered two-child scenarios.
The Morgan-Lino study used income level scenarios mapped directly to the US Department of Agriculture statistics for Family Expenditures on Children for 1998. An advantage of the study was that very few assumptions were made beyond what the guideline formula required. This allowed for a more direct comparison of the guidelines. Like the Pirog study, the Morgan-Lino study dealt only with two-child scenarios.
The Fassler study was limited in that it only considered one-child situations. Thus, results could not be extended to situations dealing with two or more children, and could not be compared directly to the other two studies located by the author. It could also be argued that Dr. Fassler, although a very bright person (he is a DMD) with a background in statistics, is not a nationally recognized authority on child support, as may be said for the authors of the other two studies.
The Fassler Study had advantages to the author’s purposes for this article in that it focused on Massachusetts, and compared all 50 states. The study also offered a wide range of parental income scenarios, and in-depth documentation and data of how calculations were performed with the results. This allowed for more expanded analyses, which are dealt with later in the article.
The “number of children” assumption is clearly a critical factor. The US Census Bureau reported statistics on child support for 1996. There were 13.7 million custodial parents in the United States, 7.6 million of which involved cases where there was one child from the absent parent. 4.2 million families, or about 30%, involved two child situations. Thus, at a maximum, the Pirog and Morgan-Lino studies could only represent 30% of family situations that potentially involve child support.
This 30% is most certainly overstated. As the studies make additional assumptions necessary to compute child support obligations, such as family income and ages of children, the 30% figure must by definition decrease. The implication here is that one-child situations are by far more prevalent than two child situations (55% versus 30%). [vi]
Both the Pirog and Morgan-Lino studies conclude that support orders per state guidelines are too low. This conclusion, however, cannot be extended beyond the demographic scope examined by each of these studies, which deals exclusively with two-child scenarios. As stated previously, this is at most 30% of all potential child support situations in the United States. It could be argued that if only one scenario was chosen to be most representative of the country as a whole, it should be the one-child scenario, due to its greater prevalence within the population (55%).