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Big Child Support Increases Likely Under 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines (UPDATED 8/13/21)

Big Child Support Increases Forecast Under 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines

State’s new Child Support Guidelines likely to cause increases in many child support cases.

After a decade of reductions in Massachusetts child support benefits, the 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines have been released. The new Guidelines appear to include substantial increases in child support for families with multiple children in Massachusetts, eliminate a controversial 15% “cap” on parental cost sharing for childcare (but not medical insurance costs), and reallocates the balance between alimony and child support by increasing presumptive child support orders to include the first $400,000 in combined parental income in the child support calculation.

The changes recommended by the 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines Task Force appear to reflect many of the concerns raised by child support advocacy groups, who argued that Massachusetts has short changed parents with multiple children while ignoring skyrocketing healthcare and childcare costs over the last decade. With the new Guidelines, child support advocates appear to have avoided concerns that child support would continue decreasing in Massachusetts, consistent with every Task Force since 2009. (The 2020-2021 Child Support Guidelines Review, which was published with the draft Guidelines, will be the subject of a future blog in this space.)

Advocates do not appear to have prevailed on every issue, however. The base child support order for a single child in Massachusetts appears to have increased only marginally. As a result, the state’s “base” child support order will remain substantially lower than the amount of a comparable order in 2009. The 2021 Child Support Guidelines will become effective on October 4, 2021. Until then, the 2018 Guidelines will remain the law of the land in Massachusetts.

Dramatic Child Support Increase for Parents with Multiple Children

Since 2013, Massachusetts has been criticized by child support advocates for unusually low child support orders for families with multiple children. Under the 2018 Guidelines, the state’s base child support increased by 25% for families with two children and 38% for three children, with slight increases for additional children. The 2021 Guidelines include a substantial increase for families with multiple children, with base child support to increase by 40% for families with two children, 68% for three children, 85% for four children and 94% for five children.

In practical terms, the increase means that a current child support of $250 per week for two children will increase to $280 per week under the 2021 Guidelines. Families with three children will see an even greater jump, with a $250 order for three children under the 2018 Guidelines potentially increasing to $308 per week under the 2021 Guidelines.

Although the 2021 Guidelines do not appear to include a substantial increase in base child support, the significant increase in child support for families with multiple children represents a major victory for child support advocates.

2021 Guidelines Expand Child Support to First $400,000 in Combined Income

Another major change under the 2021 Guidelines is likely to impact high-earning families: The presumptive application of the Guidelines to the first $400,000 in combined parental income, which represents a substantial jump from the previous limit of $250,000 in combined parental income. Under the 2018 Guidelines, combined income of the parties exceeding $250,000 was essentially excluded from the child support equation. For some divorced parents, support was available for income exceeding $250,000 through alimony; however, many Massachusetts parents are ineligible for alimony.

The increase to $400,000 in combined income will be felt immediately in Massachusetts courts. Under the 2018 Guidelines, combined income of $400,000 would result in total child support of $747/week for one child (if one parent earned 90% of said income, then he or she would be responsible for paying 90% of the combined order - i.e. $672/week - as his or her child support order). Under the 2021 Guidelines, combined income of $400,000 would result in total child support of $1070/week for one child.

This increase of more than 30% will be further compounded in cases involving multiple children, where the 2021 Guidelines include substantial increases for additional children compared to the 2018 Guidelines. For example, if one or both parties earned $400,000 with two children, the 2018 Guidelines generated a base child support order of $940/week. Under the 2021 Guidelines, if one or both parties earn $400,000 with two children, the resulting child support order will increase to $1,498 per week - an increase of more than 50%.

Cost Sharing for Childcare, but Not Medical Insurance Costs

One of the biggest criticisms that child support advocates directed at the 2017-2018 Guidelines was the imposition of a 15% cap on cost sharing for childcare and medical insurance costs. In essence, the cap limited the impact of childcare and medical insurance costs to a 15% increase or decrease on child support orders. This frequently meant that parents with substantial childcare and medical insurance costs received little credit for their expenditures. (For a more detailed analysis of the 15% cap, check out this blog.)

Under the 2021 Guidelines, the 15% cap on childcare has been replaced with a much more generous cost-sharing provision:

Reasonable child care costs of up to $355 per week, per child for the children covered by the child support order and due to gainful employment of either parent are shared by the parents in proportion to their share of combined available income. To determine the amount of child care costs to be shared by the parents, the guidelines worksheet requires the input of information regarding the number of children for whom child care is being paid and the total cost of the child care paid per week.

Thus, if one parent earns 90% of the parties’ combined income and the other party earns 10%, then the party earning 90% of the income should be responsible for 90% of the childcare costs up to $335 per week, per child. It is fair to say that this presents a seismic change in how childcare costs are treated in Massachusetts child support cases.

The story is much more complicated with medical insurance costs, however. As with childcare costs, the 2021 Guidelines eliminate the 15% "cap" on adjustments to child support for health insurance costs. However, the 2021 Guidelines do not include a “cost sharing” provision for medical insurance costs like we see for childcare. Instead, the 2021 Guidelines return to a prior practice of allowing the parent paying for medical insurance to deduct the premium cost from his or her gross income:

Each parent may deduct from gross income the reasonable cost of the individual or family health care premium/enrollment actually paid by that parent.

The Task Force’s decision to return to the "deduction" method is likely to generate consternation among some in the family bar. We reviewed some of these problems in our 2015 blog, A Broken Formula: Medical Insurance Costs under the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, which examined the state's previous "deduction" model for medical insurance cost. As noted in the blog, treating medical insurance premium costs as a deduction from gross income tends to generate uneven results in the child support calculation. Indeed, the "deduction" approach sometimes generates grossly inequitable results.

Treating medical insurance costs as deductions from income has two main results. First, treating these costs as a deduction tends to limit the “credit” that any party is likely to receive for medical insurance coverage to 25% of the paying party’s out-of-pocket cost. (Parents with multiple children may receive a slightly higher credit, but many parents recoup far less than 25% of the cost under the deduction model.) Second, and perhaps more concerning, treating medical insurance costs as deductions tends to penalize lower earning parents who also pay for medical insurance. For example, if a child support recipient only earns 25% of the total parental income, the Guidelines will provide almost no adjustment to the child support order in consideration of that parent paying for medical insurance. The problem is especially pronounced for lower-earning child support recipients who also pay for medical insurance. (Even with the 15% "cap" on child support adjustments for medical insurance costs, the 2018 Guidelines appear to have apportioned insurance costs in a significantly more equitable manner than the "deduction" approach being re-introduced in the 2021 Guidelines.)

The parties most clearly advantaged by a "deduction" scheme are high-earning parents who pay both child support and medical insurance costs. These parents would pay all or nearly all of the medical insurance costs under a cost-sharing scheme, but instead will see their child support payments reduced under a "deduction" approach. (Even these parents only see limited benefits, however, where the main takeaway from the "deduction" approach is invariably that the parent who pays medical insurance ends up paying most of the cost on their own, regardless of their income bracket.) In short, the deduction approach tends to turn medical insurance costs into a financial "hot potato" - with each parent trying to avoid being stuck with a cost can't recoup under the Guidelines.

Of course, there is one persuasive reason for the 2021 Task Force to avoid adopting a cost-sharing approach for medical insurance costs: Stability. The Task Force's deduction-based scheme will cause far fewer dramatic swings in child support than a cost-sharing approach would have triggered. The Task Force is surely aware that many of the other changes it made to the Guidelines will cause dramatic swings in some current child support orders - including increasing parental income to $400,000, increasing child support for families with multiple children, and introducing cost sharing for childcare. Against this backdrop, adopting a cost-sharing approach for medical insurance costs may have simply been a bridge too far for the Task Force, especially given the challenges the Probate Court system will already face in implementing the new Guidelines amidst the lingering effects of the pandemic.

It seems likely that the 2025 Task Force will closely observe how cost-sharing works for childcare expenses under the 2021 Guidelines while considering whether a similar cost-sharing approach should be applied to medical insurance costs in 2025 Guidelines.

Not Every Child Support Order Will Increase: Base Child Support Formula Only Tweaked for 2021

An initial review of the 2021 Guidelines suggests that the 2021 Task Force made only minor changes to the core formula used to calculate “base child support” in Massachusetts. “Base child support” is the amount of child support paid for one child at a specific level of parental income. In every case, base child support order is calculated first, then subject to credits or offsets (e.g. for childcare) or multipliers (e.g. for multiple children). Accordingly, any change to the base child support formula necessarily impacts every child support order in Massachusetts.

It is very important to point out that as of the date of this blog, the Task Force has not provided an interactive 2021 Child Support Guidelines Worksheet. This means that any child support calculations using the 2021 formula have so far been made “by hand”. As soon as the Task Force releases an interactive version of the .PDF for the 2021 worksheet, it will become much easier to make side-by-side comparisons between the 2018 and 2021 Guidelines formulas. All that being said, after performing several basic calculations using the non-interactive 2021 Worksheet, this author observed only small increases in base child support from the 2018 Guidelines to the 2021 Guidelines.

Like each new edition of the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, the 2021 Guidelines were accompanied by an Economic Review performed by the state’s chosen economic consultant. (Since 2013, the Task Force’s Economic Review has been performed by the state’s controversial economic advisor, the Brattle Group.) The Economic Review for the 2021 Child Support Task Force also appears to suggest that only minor tweaks were made to the base child support calculation in the 2021 Guidelines. Page 28 of the Economic Review discusses these tweaks in the section titled, “3. Income Tranches and Nominal Percentages”. Here the Economic Review suggests that the Task Force re-worked the child support formula at different income levels in a manner that “did not decrease child support amounts at any income level” and which caused the resulting “guidelines amounts [to] increase slightly”, while “avoid[ing] material changes in the guidelines amounts”.

The marginal increases in base child support orders suggested by the Economic Review are consistent with test calculations performed on combined parental income from $100,000 to $200,000 using the non-interactive 2021 Child Support Guidelines Worksheet. These test calculations resulted in minor increases in base child support (i.e. generally less than $5 per week) under the 2021 Guidelines. Of course, until comprehensive comparisons with the 2018 Guidelines can be performed using an interactive 2021 Child Support Guidelines Worksheet, it is important to reserve final judgment on any changes to base child support formula in the 2021 Guidelines.

Relationship Between Alimony and Child Support Explored in 2021 Guidelines

Although the Child Support Task Force has no direct authority over the Massachusetts alimony statute, the 2021 Guidelines have been updated to reflect recent appellate decisions supporting the entry of concurrent child support and alimony orders in cases that fall within the presumptive range of the Child Support Guidelines. (For a detailed review of one such recent decision, check out our blog on the Appeals Court decision in Calvin C. v. Amelia A. (2021)). The 2021 Guidelines reflect the growing consensus that Massachusetts judges can simultaneously order alimony in cases where the child support guidelines apply:

Depending upon the circumstances, such as the total amount of support that would be available to each household, it may be appropriate to calculate alimony first, and in other circumstances it may be appropriate to calculate child support first.

The Task Force directly cites the recent decision in Calvin C. v. Amelia A. (2021), in which the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that Probate Court judges may order alimony prior to calculating child support - a major change from the common practice of restricting recipients to either alimony or child support in most cases. The Task Force commentary noted:

On June 10, 2021, the Appeals Court issued a decision that addressed whether certain alimony amounts should be included as income by the recipient and deducted by the payor when calculating child support. The Appeals Court noted that where one spouse is the sole payor of both alimony and child support, and alimony is calculated first, it is usually necessary to “us[e] the parties’ adjusted, postalimony incomes when calculating child support to avoid running afoul of G. L. c. 208, § 53 (c) (2) . . . .”

In the short term, the increase to $400,000 of combined income that is now subject to the Child Support Guidelines may result in fewer alimony cases. However, as the rationale articulated in Calvin C. v. Amelia A. becomes more broadly adopted by attorneys and Probate Court judges, it seems likely that an increasing number of cases will feature concurrent orders for child support and alimony, even if the parties' combined incomes is less than $400,000.

Minimum Child Support Decreased to $12/Week

In addition to increase maximum child support orders, the 2021 Guidelines reduce child support obligations for parents at the bottom of the income scale. Under the 2018 Guidelines, even unemployed parents were expected to pay at least $25 per week in child support. The 2021 Guidelines reduce minimum child support obligations for parents earning less than $210 per week to as low as $12/week.

It will be interesting to see how courts implement this change, where many judges are likely to feel that even chronically unemployed parents should be able to contribute $12/week to the support of their children.

Child Support for Adult Children Over 18 Years Old

The 2021 Guidelines carry forward the change from the 2018 Guidelines that provided for a presumptive 25% decrease in child support for adult children. However, because of the substantial increase in child support for families with multiple children, it is likely that some parents with multiple adult children may receive increased child support under the 2021 Guidelines.

UMass Formula Remains in Effect Under 2021 Guidelines

The 2021 Guidelines also carry forward the so-called “UMass Rule” from the 2018 Guidelines, which provided that Massachusetts parents should not be presumptively ordered to contribute more than 50% of the cost of room, board, tuition and fees at UMass Amherst towards a child’s college expenses in a given year. The 2021 Task Force cites the skyrocketing cost of college relative to inflation as grounds for the rule.

It will continue to be important for parents and adult children to consider the limits of the rule when a child is considering attending a college which includes costs that substantially exceed the in-state cost of UMass Amherst. Specifically, parents should be aware that federal student loan rules effectively limit the amount that an undergraduate student can borrow in his or her name towards college. For children attending private colleges, it is important to know that even if each parent contributes 50% of the annual cost of UMass Amherst to the child’s private college expenses, the shortfall may be greater than the amount the child can borrow in his or her own name in student loans.

Minor Changes to Self-Employment Income and Imputation of Income

The 2021 Guidelines do not appear to include major changes to self-employment income; however, the 2021 Guidelines include a commonsense adjustment to the treatment of personal expenses paid that are paid for by a self-employed parent’s business. Instead of addressing such “in kind benefits” in the self-employment income section, the 2021 Guidelines shift these benefits to the section addressing the imputation of income:

Expense reimbursements, in-kind payments or benefits received by a parent, personal use of business property, and payment of personal expenses by a business in the course of employment, self-employment, or operation of a business may be included as income if such payments are significant and reduce personal living expenses.

The shift in treatment of in-kind benefits to the imputation section helps emphasize that personal expenses paid for by a parent’s business may be counted as child support income, even if the expenses are deductible for tax purposes.

Deviation: New Worksheet “Flags” Child Support Orders Exceeding 40% of Income

One interesting change in the expanded 2021 Child Support Guidelines Worksheet occurs in Box 7(e) of the new worksheet. Although the 2021 Guidelines do not mandate deviation when child support exceeds 40% of the payor’s gross income, Box 7(e) attempts to alert judges when this occurs:

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According to the Economic Review for the 2021 Child Support Task Force, approximately 10% of child support orders entered in Massachusetts includes findings that likely represent child support deviations. Child support deviations appear to be almost twice as common in Western Massachusetts counties including Hampshire, Franklin, Hampden and Berkshire counties, where more than 20% of cases appear to include deviations. In more populous counties, including Suffolk, Middlesex and Worcester counties, the deviation rate appears to be closer to approximately 7.5% of cases. According to the Economic Review, "in a large majority (75%) of deviation cases, the orders deviated downward from the guidelines amounts."

The inclusion of Box 7(e) in the 2021 Guidelines worksheet is consistent with the efforts of the 2017 Task Force, which also sought to emphasize the need for judges to deviate from the Guidelines in appropriate situations. Of course, with crippling caseloads and staff and chronic budget shortfalls, it remains to be seen how often judges will exercise their authority to deviate from the Guidelines, even when Box 7(e) of the new worksheet suggests that perhaps a deviation may be appropriate. This is especially true in more populous counties where fewer judges preside over far larger caseloads.

Four-Page Guidelines Worksheet Adds Complexity to Child Support

Until 2018, the state’s Child Support Guidelines Worksheet was only one page long. In 2018, the Task Force expanded the worksheet to two pages. The 2021 Guidelines have now introduced a four-page worksheet. The expansion of the worksheet to four pages appears to represent the difficult balancing act between simplicity, functionality, fairness and nuance.

The more factors the Guidelines consider in setting child support, the more complex the worksheet must be. The downside to the added complexity is that many self-represented parties will be unable to effectively fill out the worksheet. Given the extreme limitations on court access that self-represented litigants have faced during the Covid-19 pandemic, the lengthier worksheet is likely to be greeted with frustration by some advocates.

Lack of Fillable Worksheet May Risk Repeat of 2017 Errors

As part of its initial release of the draft 2021 Guidelines, the Task Force has released 4-page PDF worksheet that is not currently “fillable”. In other words, anyone experimenting with this version of the 2021 Guidelines Worksheet must “do the math” by hand. The lack of a fillable worksheet risks a repeat of the errors that plagued the 2017 Guidelines, in which the Task Force was forced reconvene after multiple errors were discovered in the worksheet after the 2017 Guidelines went live.

With just two months until the 2021 Guidelines become law, the Task Force would be well served to fast-track the production of a fillable PDF worksheet so that attorneys can troubleshoot any calculation errors that arise before the Guidelines become law.

UPDATE (8/13/21) Beta Child Support Calculator for 2021 Guidelines Available from Amherst Attorney Julia Rueschemeyer

Amherst family law attorney Julia Rueschemeyer has created a beta calculator for the 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines that allows users to experiment with hypothetical child support orders under the 2021 Guidelines. There is a very important caveats for users to understand about this or any other beta calculator that becomes available prior to the release of the Trial Court’s final interactive 2021 Child Support Guidelines worksheet. As Attorney Rueschemeyer explains in her preamble for the calculator:

The courts have not yet released the exact calculations they will be using starting October 4, 2021; this calculator is based on the state’s descriptions of the calculations. When the state releases the actual calculations, this calculator will be checked, finalized, and then put on a permanent page on this website (so don’t link to this page).

(Note: This author specifically obtained permission from Attorney Rueschemeyer to link to her beta calculator for this blog. We will replace our link to the beta calculator with a permanent link to Attorney Rueschemeyer 2021 Guidelines calculator once she finalized it.)

As Attorney Rueschemeyer indicates in her preamble, the non-interactive 2021 Guidelines worksheet that the Trial Court has provided only provides an outline of how the 2021 Guidelines formula will work. We will only know the final formula when the state releases a fillable interactive Worksheet or online calculator with the Trial Court’s “official” formula.

Lastly, it should be noted that Attorney Rueschemeyer has already discovered what appears to be an error in the Trial Court's draft 2021 Guidelines worksheet, where Line 8b of the draft worksheet refers to “8a x 3b” when it likely should say “8a x 3c”. The sooner the Trial Court releases a final fillable worksheet, the more time it will have to correct the kind of errors that plagued the 2017 Guidelines in advance of the effective date of October 4, 2021. (Indeed, as the effective date creeps closer, parties and attorneys will need a worksheet in order to properly calculate child support for cases that will not be finalized until after 10/4/21).

Conclusion: 2021 Guidelines Likely to Result in Substantial Child Support Changes in Many Cases

This blog represents only the author’s first impressions of the 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines. An initial review strongly suggests that the 2021 Guidelines will result in substantial increases in child support in many cases; particularly in cases involving multiple children, combined parental income of greater than $400,000 per year, and/or cases in which custodial parents have substantial childcare costs. In cases in which non-custodial parents have substantial medical and/or childcare costs, however, child support orders may be sharply reduced compared to the 2018 Guidelines.

As always, the proof will be in the pudding with the 2021 Guidelines. We will only know the full impact of the changes described above when parties, attorneys, court personnel and judges began applying the 2021 Guidelines in the real world.

Check back frequently at our blog for more in-depth explorations 2021 Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines in the weeks and months ahead.

About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts and East Sandwich, Massachusetts. He is also a mediator and conciliator for South Shore Divorce Mediation.

Schedule a consultation with Jason V. Owens today at (781) 253-2049 or send him an email.

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