Mountain Law: Introduction to the Colorado child support guidelines (column)
Under Colorado law, a child has a legal right to support from both parents until the child is emancipated. This right has long been recognized by courts and is now codified in various statutes. Regardless of the statute at issue, the same guidelines are used to determine the appropriate amount of support. This article provides a basic overview of how the guidelines work.
Preliminarily, the guidelines are based on research into how much of two-parent family income is spent on children. They were formulated in response to concerns that child support levels were too low, with the result that many children and their custodial parents suffered diminished living standards or were even forced into poverty, while noncustodial parents enjoyed an improved standard of living. The guidelines also try to ensure that similar child support amounts are awarded in similar cases.
Child support obligations are largely based on the relative incomes of the parents. The term “income” for purposes of child support has a very specific meaning under the statutes. It is necessary to examine all potential sources of income — such as salaries, capital gains, social security and even lottery winnings — and determine how they are to be treated using the wording of the statute and applicable case law.
A common fear is that a parent will choose to be underemployed for the purpose of paying less child support. For this reason, the court is allowed to attribute income for purpose of applying the guidelines based on a person’s earnings potential rather than actual earnings.
The guidelines contain a series of schedules that provide the “basic child support obligation” based on the parents’ combined income and number of children. The guidelines consider one parent to have sole custody of the children even if the children stay with the other parent up to 92 nights per year. In a sole custody situation, the basic child support obligation is divided between the parents in proportion to their incomes. For instance, if parent No. 1 earns 60 percent of the combined income and parent No. 2 earns 40 percent, then parent No. 1 will be required to pay 60 percent of the guideline amount to parent No. 2. Parent No. 2 is expected to spend 40 percent of the guideline amount on the children. This sole custody situation is calculated using “Worksheet A” as promulgated by Colorado courts. Note that a parent who has custody of the children less than 92 nights per year gets no benefit for purposes of the child support calculation as a result of the custody.
The term “shared physical care” is used by the statute to refer to a situation where each parent keeps the children overnight for more than 92 nights per year and both parents contribute to the expenses of the children in addition to child support. In this circumstance, the child support obligation is adjusted downward to account for shared expenses. This shared custody situation is calculated using “Worksheet B” as promulgated by Colorado courts. Note that a parent obtaining the benefit of a lower child support obligation under Worksheet B requires that parent taking on a greater custody role and contributing to expenses in addition to child support.
The guideline amount will apply in the vast majority of cases. However, the court has discretion to modify the total amount of child support up or down based on pertinent factors such as the child’s own income. In addition, a parent’s child support obligation will be reduced by payments made by that parent for child care costs and extraordinary medical expenses (such as orthodontic work) on behalf of a child.
This article is intended merely as an introduction. Working through the child support guidelines is a complex process that should be undertaken with an attorney.
Noah Klug is owner of The Klug Law Firm, LLC, in Summit County, Colorado. He may be reached at 970-468-4953 or Noah@TheKlugLawFirm.com.
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