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Is it Time to Change Your Child Support?

Unless you have a child support agreement or order for older teenagers, you will probably ask the question of whether and when child support (CS) can be changed. Any time parents can reach an agreement instead of have a trial, CS can be changed so long as the legal documents are properly prepared. But more importantly, if there is no agreement to change CS, what are the grounds a parent can use to ask that the amount be changed? This article looks at that question in the broadest terms and doesn’t get into the many exceptions to the rules or other unique situations. CS is only permanent until a parent files court documents to change or modify it. Until a child is eighteen or graduates from high school, the court has the authority to change the amount, increasing it or decreasing it, as may be necessary over the years.

Court Orders: 3 Years or Changed Circumstances?

The courts almost always calculate CS by using a formula set out by the NC Child Support Guidelines, which generally use only the gross incomes of the parents, work-related child-care cost, the number of children each parent has, and the out-of-pocket cost for each child’s health insurance. If you have a court order or a separation agreement that was converted into a court order, either parent may file a motion to modify CS if three years have passed since the last CS order was entered. The law assumes that after three years, it is time to review CS, which will be changed if there is at least 15% difference between the old amount of CS and the new amount of CS based on the current Guidelines. If three years haven’t passed since the CS order was entered, then a parent must show there has been a significant change in circumstances since the date that the last CS order was entered. 

What Counts as Changed Circumstances?

The general rule is that changes in circumstances related to the child (or children) is enough to change child support. If a parent changes jobs and the child’s health insurance cost increases by $300 per month, for example, the change in circumstances merits a change in child support. Another fairly straight-forward change in circumstances is when a parent has a significant drop in income that is involuntary. In other words, if you pay CS and your income decreases for reasons beyond your control, you can reasonably ask for a reduction in CS. If a factory lays off employees, that is considered involuntary, and it would be a change in circumstances that would justify changing CS. On the other hand, if a parent reduces his or her income voluntarily, the court looks at the motive. If the parent is fired for stealing from an employer or quits a job to get out of paying CS, that is considered to be an act done in bad faith. When a voluntary decrease in income is done in bad faith, that parent can’t seek a new CS order based on changed circumstances.

Separation Agreements: Is CS Unreasonable Now?

If your child support was agreed upon in a separation agreement that did not get converted into a court order, the court assumes that amount of child support is appropriate and should stay in effect unless it is later determined to be unreasonable. To decide whether it is unreasonable, the court cannot just plug in the incomes, childcare and health insurance and use the Child Support Guidelines. Instead, the court must calculate the CS much like an alimony case, using detailed budgets that show each parent’s income and living expenses. Each parent is cross examined to prove whether the expenses are within reason for purposes of child support. This Pre-Guidelines method of calculating CS is time consuming and expensive. This is why the law assumes that the court should rely on the Guidelines. If the court rules that the CS in the separation agreement is no longer reasonable, the court will change it. The older the separation agreement, the more likely it is that the amount of CS is no longer reasonable.

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