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Understanding Child Support in Arizona
On April 1, 2018, the Arizona Supreme Court updated Arizona’s Child Support Guidelines. Although the changes made were not substantial, some may have a significant impact on child support outcomes.
Making sense of the guidelines can be a challenge. To help you better understand child support in Arizona, we will explain and simplify each aspect of Child Support determinations and answer many commonly asked questions.
Mediators utilize the Arizona’s Guidelines and Child Support Calculator to demonstrate how child support is determined and further answer parents’ questions regarding child support calculations.
Once parents have a basic understanding of child support, they can decide whether or not to mutually agree to use the calculator-generated amount or to deviate upward or downward, based on the best interests and unique needs of their child(ren). In mediation, this begins with a healthy, respectful, and productive conversation regarding child support and parents are able to reach their best possible agreements, for themselves and their child(ren).
The Arizona Support Guidelines
Every state takes a different approach to determine child support. In Arizona, the guidelines utilize the Income Share Model which is based on the idea:
“that the child should receive the same proportion of each parent’s individual income, as they would if their parents were still living together.”
This approach is also referred to as the Necessities Based Model. Support is generally lower in Arizona than in neighboring states. The idea is that both parents share child-care costs, and therefore, the guidelines look at the parent’s combined income, along with child-care costs, to determine child support.
Calculating Child Support: Standardized Method
Arizona uses a standardized method to ensure that child support determinations are consistent and that they consider the same factors in every case. This standardized method is applicable to all divorcing, separated or unmarried parents with minor children, including adopted children. The child support determinations can easily be computed utilizing the Arizona Supreme Court Child Support Calculator.
Child support is paid from one parent to the other and cannot be made via gifts or non-monetary items—such as clothes, resources, etc.—unless the court orders otherwise. Additionally, direct payment for goods or activities by a parent is not considered child support. Further, child support does not eliminate a person’s right to collect other forms of support, such as spousal maintenance.
In litigated cases, the state of Arizona oversees child support payments by an Income Withholding Order through the Arizona Child Support Clearinghouse in which the state withholds funds from the payor’s paycheck and disburses the funds to the recipient. In Arizona, the obligation to pay child support takes priority over all other financial obligations and failure to pay child support can result in harsh penalties, including jail time.
Although most litigated cases result in the issuance of an Income Withholding Order, parents can mutually agree to pay child support without state intervention. In mediation, parents avoid court and reach agreements under the guidance of their divorce mediator. For example, parents could agree to payment by Direct Pay in lieu of an Income Withholding Order. Direct pay makes an automatic direct deposit each month from the payor’s bank account directly to the recipient’s bank account. Ultimately, the decision to opt for an Income Withholding Order vs. Direct Pay is based upon the comfort level of the recipient.
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Our simple, four-step process
Hear about our straight-forward Arizona divorce process, have all your questions answered, and learn about the next steps.
We File the Petition
You will avoid the often hurtful process of “being served.” Instead, we file your divorce Petition without conflict and your process moves forward.
We Help You Reach Agreements
Our expert mediators are licensed Arizona attorneys who provide you with the legal information you need to make informed agreements on every divorce issue.
Our mediation coordinators provide you with frequent updates and answer your questions anytime. Our goal is to make your process as simple and easy as possible.
We File the Consent Decree
Your divorce is finalized when we file your consent decree with the court, without ever going to court.
Deviating from the Guidelines
Generally, child support is calculated based on the guidelines. Under Arizona law there is a presumption that judges will enter an order for child support consistent with the guidelines.
However, the judge does not have to use the amount generated by the calculator and can choose to deviate upward on downward at their discretion.
In mediation, parents can mutually agree to deviate from the guidelines. Mediation provides an opportunity for parents to reach an agreement regarding child support that is tailored to their child(ren)’s and their specific needs.
Child Support Expiration Date
The guidelines provide a presumptive end for child support, in which, child support will end the last day of the month, of the last of the following of these events to occur:
- The child has graduated high school and turns 18 years of age;
- The child has turned 18 years of age and graduates high school; or
- The child has not graduated high school but turns 19 years of age.
A child turns 18 years of age in January of his senior year of high school. Child support will remain in effect until the last day of the month he graduates high school, or the last day of the month of his 19th birthday, should he still be attending high school at that time.
A child graduates high school in May but does not turn 18 until August. Child support will continue throughout August.
The guidelines are based on many presumptions, such as child(ren) graduating from high school in May, and child(ren) entering 1st grade if they reach the age of 6 before the first day of September. These presumptions may not be accurate or fitting for every family. As such, Arizona law allows discretion for a judge to order support that deviates from the guidelines and for parents to mutually agree on a different amount, based on their specific needs and circumstances.
Defining Gross Income
As previously mentioned, the guidelines utilize an Income Share Model, in which the gross incomes of both parents are considered. The guidelines define gross income broadly and consider almost any source of income as part of the parent’s gross income, including, but not limited to:
- Severance Pay
- Social Security or Worker’s Compensation Benefits
- Recurring Gifts
- and Prizes
In general, overtime is not considered income. The court’s position is that a parent should have the choice of working additional hours, through overtime or a second job, without child support increasing. The court will, however, consider overtime as income if it has been historically earned and is anticipated to continue in the future.
A nurse may work overtime as part of her regular 3 day on, 3 day off schedule. All of her income would likely be considered income for the child support calculator, even when her work hours exceed 40 hours in a week.
If income is seasonal or fluctuates, the court may annualize the income over a 12 month period.
A school teacher works for 9 months out of the year, with summers off, as part of his regular schedule. The total income received during the 9 months would be divided by 12 in order to annualize income.
A welder travels throughout the year to various locations in need of temporary workers. The welder’s income heavily depends on the need for welders. The income earned will not only need to be annualized, but an average income will also need to be determined based on the welder’s historical earnings.
Attributing Wages to Unemployed or Under-Employed Spouses
If a parent is unemployed or under-employed, income can be attributed to them based on their earning capacity, which is based on wages that could have been earned had their previous employment not been terminated. This is one of the most controversial elements of the guidelines and can often result in extreme financial hardship for one of the parents.
In addition, the subjectivity of a person’s earning capacity is hotly litigated in court, and is often determined by a judge, who typically has little insight into the parents’ lives. The court has attempted to resolve some of the debate by providing a list of aspects of the parent’s lives that should be considered when attributing income. But this list is subject to the judge’s discretion. Some factors considered, include, but are not limited to:
- Employment and Earning History
- Job Skills
- Educational Attainment
- and Health
In most cases, a judge will at least attribute minimum wage to an unemployed parent.
However, there are exceptions, including:
- The parent having physical or mental disabilities;
- The parent being engaged in training or employment that establishes basic skills that will enhance their earning capacity;
- Unusual emotional or physical needs of a child that cause a parent toneed to be present in the home;
- The parent is a recipient of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families; or
- The parent cares for young children and the cost of childcare is
The income from a parent’s new spouse is not treated as income.
Below is an illustration of the difficulty and uncertainty of attributing income:
Dad has not earned an income in the last 5 years. He previously worked in the car manufacturing industry for 3 years, with an annual income of $60,000 and $80,000.
In litigation, a judge could designate Dad’s earning capacity based on his earning history and ignore the 5-year gap in employment. A judge has discretion and could set Dad’s earning capacity at: minimum wage, $60,000, $80,000, or any other amount the judge thinks is appropriate.
On the other hand, in mediation, the mediator helps the parents have realistic conversations about Dad’s most likely earning capacity. The mediator identifies all circumstances to be considered and facilitates a discussion so that parents can reach an agreement as to what amount they will use as Dad’s earning capacity. The mediator then helps the parents form creative agreements that fit their particular needs.
For instance, parents could agree that for a short time period, Dad be attributed little or no income–perhaps 2 to 4 months—and at the end of that time period, they would return to mediation and reassess the child support based on Dad’s actual income being earned at that time. This results in child support being calculated on real income rather than an estimate.
In mediation, mediator’s work with parents to determine what a judge would likely assign as gross income and what each parent believes is a reasonable attribution. The mediator will then show parents how different income amounts will impact the final child support amount. Although parents frequently debate about what income to include, the reality is that it can actually have very little effect on the calculated child support amount.
Last year, a Doctor earned $250,000 gross income. However, in the two previous years, she earned $210,000 and $190,000, respectively. In litigation, parents might fight for hours, or days, or longer, over which amount to use as earning capacity. The mediator then shows the parent that the difference in the child support calculation for $190,000 vs. $250,000 is only $100 per month, allowing them to quickly reach an agreement and move forward.
Calculating Income: Self-Employed or Owns Business Owner
Calculating gross income can be challenging if a parent is self-employed or is a business owner. Generally, income from self-employment is considered gross revenue (100% of any money generated) minus ordinary and necessary business expenses. Ordinary and necessary business expenses are considered to be expenses without which, the business could not survive, such as: payroll, rent, marketing, etc. It is important to note that many expenses that are deductible for tax purposes should not be deducted for child support purposes. For instance, car, phone, or internet payments may be deductible for IRS purposes, but should not be deducted for child support purposes. The rationale for not excluding expenses, like the cost of cars, phones, or internet, is that most parents have these expenses.
Adjusting Gross Income
Once gross income for each parent has been determined, the next step is to adjust the income of each party, based on real expenses being paid. The idea is to adjust income to reflect payment of certain expenses and to account for funds that are not available for disbursement. These adjustments may include:
- Court-ordered spousal maintenance paid in the current or a past marriage
- Court-ordered child support for children of other relationships
- Support for another minor child that is not subject to the current child support or any previous court orders
- Other adjustments for healthcare premiums, child care expenses, and extraordinary expenses (explained below)
In mediation, both parents will agree on each parent’s gross income and the mediator will assist them in adjusting their respective incomes.
Parent’s Combined Adjusted Gross Income
After the parents have determined each parent’s gross income and made adjustments, the next step is to calculate Combined Adjusted Gross Income. Combined Adjusted Gross Income is the combination of both parent’s gross income.
“I’m so glad we went the mediation route.”
“Well-organized, supportive, compassionate and effective: I’m so glad we went the mediation route. I was completely satisfied with the results.
Their level of skill and compassion surpassed what I expected during the difficult process of divorce.”
The Maximum Child Support Obligation
Under the guidelines, there is a maximum at which the child support calculation is capped. This maximum is calculated and generated by two factors: 1) the parent’s gross monthly income, and 2) the number of children they have. The guidelines contemplate up to 6 children and up to $20,000 per month earned collectively by both parents. If either threshold is reached, the calculator will hit a maximum child support number.
If a Dad earns $15,000 per month and Mom earns $5,000 per month, the child support award might be that Dad pays Mom $2,000 per month in child support. If Dad gets a raise to $25,000 per month, the child support would remain at $2,000 per month because the parents had already reached the $20,000 per month threshold.
Although there is a child support threshold, it is possible for child support to exceed it. For instance, additional child expenses such as insurance premiums, child care cost, educational costs (such as tuition), may be taken into consideration in determining a more accurate amount. In court, a parent has to prove the need for additional support. In mediation, parents may mutually agree to deviate to a higher amount, if they agree it is in the best interests of their children.
Calculating the Total Child Support Obligation
When calculating the basic child support obligation, the court must attribute some costs (such as the cost of health insurance for the child(ren)) and may contribute others (such as day care cost) in determining the final child support obligation.
When calculating the cost for the child(ren)’s health insurance premium for medical, dental, and/or vision coverage, the amount considered should only reflect the amount paid for the child(ren)’s coverage and should not include any amount paid for the parent’s premium for medical, dental, and/or vision coverage. A simple way to determine the amount can be illustrated as follows:
|The Monthly Insurance Premium Cost for Parent + Child(ren)||Cost of Premium w/ child|
|Less the Monthly Insurance Premium Cost for Parent Only||– (Cost of Premium for P)|
|Equals the Parents Actual Cost for the Child(ren)’s Insurance Premium Cost||= Total for Calculator|
The court may include other expenses in the child support calculator, such as:
Child Care Costs
These costs are annualized and entered in the child support calculator.
If child care costs are $300 per month for 9 months each year and
$500 per month for 3 months each year, the average monthly cost would be $350, [($300 x 9) + ($500 x 3) / 12.] The court may also consider any federal child care tax credit. This credit is only given to parents whose parenting time exceeds 50% of the year, and who also have child care expenses. In mediation, if child care costs exist, the mediator will show you how the addition of this expense would impact the child support amount.
Educational expenses traditionally cover expenses for children attending private or special schools, but could cover expenses beyond normal educational expenses, if parents mutually agree.
Extraordinary Child Care Expenses
Extraordinary Expenses are those expenses beyond the needs of most children, particularly relating to special needs, gifted, or handicapped children. This section would include expenses that are necessary to assist a child with such needs. In mediation, parents are able to carefully and thoughtfully address the unique needs of their children. Mediators help parents to identify creative solutions and to develop a parenting plan that will help them to best provide for their children’s needs.
Older Child Adjustment
The court acknowledges that expenses for children 12 years of age or older exceed the expenses for children younger than 12 years of age. The child support calculator automatically adjusts for the children’s ages.
Calculating Each Parent’s Proportionate Share
After the child support is calculated, the amount is then divided based on each parent’s monthly gross income (e.g., a proportion division, respective to each parent’s monthly gross income). The result is a percentage that represents each parent’s contribution to the total gross income.
The parent’s combined gross income is $10,000 per month. Dad makes $6,000 per month and Mom makes $4,000 per month, in gross income. Thus, Dad’s share of the combined gross income would be 60% and Mom’s share would be 40%. Practically speaking, Dad will pay Mom child support.
$6,000 is 60% of $10,000, so Dad would likely pay 60% of child costs
$4,000 is 40% of $10,000, so Mom would likely pay 40% of child costs
Assuming equal parenting time, Dad would likely pay Mom child support.
In mediation, the mediator assists parents with understanding what qualifies as income and illustrates each parents’ proportional share of gross income. This explanation helps parents reach agreements about how to divide expenses to include: out-of-pocket medical expenses, extra-curricular activity expenses, and educational costs.
Adjusting Child Support Costs Associated with Parenting Time
The guidelines take each parent’s parenting time into consideration. If one parent has the child(ren) for the majority of the time, the guidelines will adjust the child support amount based on the parenting time noted in the Parenting Plan. The reasoning behind adjusting the child support, depending on the amount of parenting time, is to compensate the parent who has more time with the child(ren), as they use more of their resources for child care expenses.
The guidelines convert time for child support calculation purposes, as follows:
- 12 hours or more = 1 day
- 6 to 11 hours = ½ day
- 3 to 5 hours = ¼ day
The logic behind calculating parenting time in this manner is to capture routine expenses, such as costs for meals and/or entertainment.
Dad picks-up the child from school on Wednesday at 3:15 PM. The next morning, Dad drops the child off at school at 8 AM. Dad also has parenting time from Friday after school at 3:15 PM until he returns the child to Mom’s residence on Saturday at 8 PM.
Wednesday 3:15 PM to Thursday 8 AM = 1 day
Friday 3:15 PM to Saturday at 8 PM = 1.25 day
So Dad has the child for a Total of 2.25 days per week (1 + 1.25 = 2.25)
2.25 days per week x 56 weeks per year = 117 days per year
The total number of days per year is then added to the calculator to equalize the financial burden between the parents.
Equal Parenting Time
If the parenting time with each parent is essentially equal, no adjustment will be made regarding the number of days spent with each parent.
Adjustments for Other Costs
There are other costs that create the need for adjustments to the child support amount. For instance, medical insurance costs and additional child care costs.
Determining the Child Support Order
Under the guidelines, the parent with less parenting time may be required to pay child support to the parent with more parenting time. The amount of child support is determined by taking the total child support amount (from the calculator) and applying any necessary adjustments, including rounding to the nearest whole dollar. Additionally, for policy reasons, the court will not inquire as to how child support funds are utilized by the recipient and presumes that the parent receiving child support will utilize the funds for the benefit of the children.
In mediation, parents are provided with information as to how the child support amount is determined using the child support calculator. Parents in mediation may mutually agree to deviate up or down from this amount depending on the best interests of their child(ren).
Parents may feel that their child(ren) have needs that are not adequately contemplated under the guidelines. In mediation, they may mutually agree to deviate from the guidelines to compensate for these inadequacies. Although the calculator results may indicate that child support should be $300 per month, they will often deviate the award upward, because it is more fair and reasonable considering the needs of the parent and the child(ren).
Dad agrees to pay 100% of all of the children’s extracurricular activities, which are substantially more than the child support amount of $200 per month. After thoughtful discussion, Mom and Dad determine the fairest approach is to allow Dad to reduce child support from $200 per month to $100 per month, since he is paying for 100% of extra-curricular activities. In mediation, parents can come to creative compromises such as this, to reflect the best interest of their children.
The Self-Support Reserve Test
After the court determines the child support amount, they automatically perform a Self-Support Reserve Test which looks at whether or not the paying parent is able to pay the calculated amount and still maintain a minimum standard of living. The self-support reserve amount is equal to 80% of monthly full-time earnings at the current minimum wage.
Different Schedules for Multiple Children
Sometimes a parenting time schedule that works for one child, does not make sense for another child. Under those circumstances, parents may have different parenting time schedules for each of their children.
The youngest child lives with Mom full-time, while the middle child lives full-time with Dad. The oldest daughter spends equal time with both parents.
Regardless of the parenting time schedule, each parent is obligated to support all of the children. This is true even if they do not have any parenting time. When there are different parenting schedules, a calculation is used to find the average number of parenting days for the parent who has less time with the children. This figure is then used to adjust the total child support obligation amount.
Travel Expenses Associated with Parenting Time
When parents live long distances from one another and the distance between their homes exceeds 100 miles, the court may consider allocating travel expenses.
When determining if travel expenses apply, the court considers why the parents live at such a distance, the age(s) of the children, each parent’s income, and other relevant factors. The goal is for the child(ren) to continue to have as much meaningful contact with both parents as is feasible.
Deviating from the Arizona Child Support Calculator
Parents may decide to deviate from the child support calculator amount for a variety of reasons. Deviations are allowed in court and in mediation.
For a deviation to occur, the following must all be met:
- Application of the guidelines is inappropriate or unjust in the particular case;
- The deviation is not contrary to the best interests of the children;
- The court makes written findings regarding 1 and 2;
- The court shows what the amount would have been without deviation; and
- The court shows what the amount is after deviation.
In mediation, as well as in court, it is also important that the following criteria are met:
- The agreement is in writing;
- The parents have entered into the agreement with knowledge of the amount of child support before the deviation; and
- The parents have entered into the agreement free of duress or coercion.
Thus, after seeing the child support amount suggested by the court and understanding how the number was reached, parents may agree to deviate from that amount. If parents mutually agree that there is a reason to deviate from the child support calculator and believe it is in the best interest of their child(ren) to do so, then their mediator can assist them with creating a personalized agreement.
Awarding Child Support to a Third-Party Caregiver
On rare occasions, a child may be in the full-time care of a third-party. In this situation, child support would be paid to this caregiver. The guidelines for determining child support payments to be paid to a third-party caregiver state that the caregiver’s expenses should be considered, not their income.
Collecting Information about Gross Income
The court collects information from each parent, generally via an Affidavit of Financial Information. This information is then used to determine the child support obligation. Disclosure of financial information is required by state law in all cases involving child support. Similar information is collected in mediation through a Mediation Questionnaire, which is a form of voluntary disclosure. Whether in court or in mediation, disclosure of financial information is required and necessary to calculate a child support amount.
Exchanging Income Information to Determine if Child Support Should Be Modified
Arizona requires parents to share their financial information, including tax returns and income statements, every 24 months. This default language is included in every Parenting Plan filed with the court. However, parents are free to mutually agree to share this information more frequently.
Modifying Child Support
In order to modify child support, a parent must petition the court. Either parent may file a petition requesting that the child support amount be modified. The court may modify child support upon a finding of substantial and continuing change of circumstances. Traditionally, this burden is met if any change to the child support calculator results in a change of 15% or more from the original child support amount (gain or loss).
Post-divorce Mediation can simply and smoothly facilitate modification of child support. Many divorce mediation clients return to The Aurit Center to have their child support, or other parenting plan issues, modified after their divorce has concluded.
Aging out of Child Support (or One Child Turns 18)
For parents with more than one child, when the oldest child turns 18, child support will not be automatically adjusted by the court. In order to further modify the amount of child support, one parent has to request a modification from the court by filing a Petition.
To avoid unnecessary conflict and litigation, parents can choose mediation as a means to modify child support. The mediator will facilitate a conversation between the parents so that they reach agreements they both believe to be in the best interest of the child(ren).
Income/Benefits Received by, or on Behalf of, a Child
Typically, income earned, or money received by a child, or on behalf of a child, is excluded from a child support calculation and is not counted towards either parent’s child support obligation. However, there are exceptions, such as benefits received by a parent on behalf of a child or child support order to continue past the age of majority, but these instances are uncommon.
Federal Income Dependency Tax Exemption for Children
Tax exemptions are typically divided by the court in proportion to parent’s income and child support contributions.
If Dad’s proportional income is 40% of their gross combined income, and Mom’s proportional income is 60%, then Dad could claim the child(ren) as a tax exemption for year 1 and 2 and Mom could claim the child(ren) as a tax exemption for year 3, 4, and 5. After five years, the pattern would repeat itself until the tax exemption is no longer available.
In mediation, parents can choose whether or not to follow this approach. Parents can mutually agree on an alternative option, such as: each parent claiming one child each year. or claiming them on rotating years.
Arizona’s guidelines, while at times complicated, serve to streamline child support determinations, by utilizing a standardized method, which accounts for the same factors in every child support case. Although the guidelines are applicable to all cases involving child support, whether the case is in litigation or mediation, parents may mutually choose to deviate from the guidelines.
Mediation helps parents to have meaningful and productive conversations about each and every issue of divorce to include child support. A mediator can assist you with reaching agreements that are mutually beneficial and in the best interests of your child(ren).
We hope that this article has been informative and enlightening and has helped you to understand the important elements involved in child support determination. We also hope that we have answered any questions that you have regarding child support in Arizona. Please feel free to contact The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation to learn more. We are here to help you every step of the way.