In Missouri, trial courts consider child support awards in all custody cases. To calculate child support, the trial courts must use Form 14, a worksheet created by the Missouri Supreme Court. The first step the trial court must take in completing Form 14 is designating which parent will receive support and which parent will pay support. Surprisingly, the Notes on Use to Form 14 give no guidance as to which parent receives which designation.
In choosing which parent goes where, the trial court has two options. It could look to the parent who receives the majority of parenting time, or it could look to the parent who earns more money.
In practice, the trial court will usually designate the parent receiving support as the parent who has the child the majority of the time. We have a major clue from the Assumptions in the Notes on Use in this regard: Assumption (7) states that the schedule of basic child support obligations assumes that the parent entitled to receive support claims the tax exemption for the children entitled to support. This assumption logically follows from the federal tax code, which states that only the parent who has the child the majority of the time may claim the child dependency exemption.
Thus, while the Notes on Use do not explicitly say the parent receiving support should be the parent who is awarded the most physical custody time, it is certainly implied in the Assumptions.
To understand why this makes sense, it helps to understand how Form 14 works. It operates on an “income shares” model, which means it combines the incomes of both parents and operates to apportion support as if the household remained intact. For example, if one parent earns 80% of the gross monthly household income, that parent would have contributed to paying 80% of the monthly household expenses. Following this example, if the parent who earned less has the child the majority of the time, given the lack of income, that parent will need child support to help meet the monthly expenses of the child. Under the income shares model, that parent would in fact receive support in that proportion. If, on the other hand, the higher-earning parent received the majority of physical time, that parent would receive a small amount of support from the other parent, or the court could find that it would be unjust and inappropriate to impose a support award at all because of the disparities in income.
So far, so good. The income shares model seems to follow reality.
But what happens in joint custody situations where parents share equal periods of physical custody but have very different incomes?
In our example above, if the 80% earner gets designated the parent with the tax exemption and the parent receiving support, it would put an undue burden on the other parent to cover half the household expenses.
The Notes on Use do provide an answer. Comment A to line 12 (the presumed child support amount) states the court should deviate from the presumed amount if it fails to award “an appropriate standard of living” because it has not allocated expenses properly among the two parents.
The Western District of the Missouri Court of Appeals recently had to address the designation problem in the case of Schuman v. Schuman. The trial court had a situation where both parents had essentially equal parenting time but the parent who earned more money was designated the parent who would receive the tax exemption and became the parent receiving support. In calculating support, it determined the mother would owe the father only $28 per month, so it decided neither parent would owe support. However, the mother noted that if she had been designated the parent owed support, she would receive $700 per month from the father, as he earned significantly more money. Despite this argument, the trial court left the father as the parent receiving support and ordered neither parent to pay child support. The mother appealed, and the Western District affirmed. First, it found that the Notes on Use and no other case law or statute requires the higher-earning parent be designated the parent paying support. Second, it rejected the mother’s argument that the award was against the weight of the evidence.
The moral of the story in Schuman is that parties need to understand the income shares assumptions in Form 14 and be sure that a resulting award in joint custody cases of equal physical time does not unduly burden one parent or have the effect of reducing overall family income as covering basic expenses. It seems that in cases like these, the designation can have that effect and while unintentional, it must be captured by the court and the parties to avoid transferring coverage of expenses assumed to be covered by one parent to another parent as listed in the Assumptions in the Notes on Use. Remember: equal periods of physical custody does not mean an equal sharing of expenses when the parents earn significantly different incomes.
If you have questions about which parent should pay child support and in what amount, contact us – we can help.