17

As an example, say Alice and Bob have a child together. Alice makes $20m/year, Bob makes $250k/year. They get a divorce and Bob gets full custody. Normally Alice would be forced to pay a lot of money ($20k/month?) to Bob in child support payments due to her income, with the argument being that the divorce shouldn't disrupt the childs lifestyle.

But what if they didn't have a wealthy lifestyle and Alice just put 95% of her income into stocks? So, no private school, no personal driver, no first class flights, etc. Would the courts then have Alice pay a much lower amount in child support, as there's no expensive lifestyle for Bob to continue?

Question is about the US.

4
  • 3
    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Pat W.
    Commented Jun 18 at 10:28
  • 1
    I know this is tagged United States, but is there a particular state in mind? Child support is something that is unfortunately quite difficult to generalize about; the states vary wildly.
    – Michael W.
    Commented Jun 19 at 20:38
  • @MichaelW. no particular state in mind. I've read about how Kim K. gets child support from Kanye despite her being a billionaire. This made me wonder whether there's ever cases where a rich person could end up paying reasonable (<$5k/month) child support. Commented Jun 19 at 21:27
  • 1
    @MichaelW. While there are many areas of the law where there is considerable interstate variation, I have not found this particular corner of family law to be one of them. There is far more variation in alimony and property division. This is in part due to the harmonizing effect of federal-state joint welfare program rules.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 19 at 22:56

1 Answer 1

36

Do rich parents pay less in child support if they didn't provide a rich lifestyle for their family pre-divorce?

Yes and no.

There is a standard schedule of presumptive child support payments based mostly on the gross income of each parent in every U.S. state. This schedule is largely the product of requirements imposed for state eligibility for joint state-federal welfare programs. But this schedule tops out at roughly upper middle class incomes with the top of the scheduled roughly providing a presumptive floor for the children of higher earning parents. Depending on the state, perhaps 1-5% of divorcing couples with children are above the schedule.

Above the schedule, child support is far more discretionary.

Effectively, the default rule is to extend the schedule up proportionately to higher incomes, but the higher the couple's incomes, the less relevant the schedule amounts become. No court awards the same percentage of income to children in a family where there is $1 billion of income in a year as it does in a family where there is $100,000 of income in year.

Above the schedule, the standard of living maintained for the children prior to the establishment of a child support order is an important factor in establishing it. But there is no firm formula or schedule to determine it. No one factor is controlling.

It is also worth noting that the lifestyle in which the children have been raised alone isn't determinative of the relevant lifestyle for a court to consider. Courts are going to be generous towards children who have been raised as if they were of very modest means, while the parents themselves live an extravagant lifestyle.

Essentially, what courts try to do is reproduce the economic support that the children would receive if their parents' relationship was healthy and the parents treated their children reasonably and equitably.

Normally Alice would be forced to pay a lot of money ($20k/month?) to Bob in child support payments due to her income, with the argument being that the divorce shouldn't disrupt the childs lifestyle.

Part of the issue is that above a certain income level there is no "normally", there are only lots of particularized exceptions.

Roughly speaking, the schedule works out to about 12.5% of the combined income, prorated by relative incomes and the percentage of time spent with each parent, per child. But as one gets far above the schedule, this percentage becomes largely irrelevant and the right answer gets very fuzzy and depends a lot on the individual judge making the decision and upon the presentation made by each parent's lawyer.

And, keep in mind, that even when the parents' combined incomes are very high, probably 90%+ of cases will settle. So most of the time, the judge won't rule at all on the question, and the "shadow" of how the judge might have ruled in these cases is very faint.

Few cases are decided by judges each year at this level, nationwide. Fewer still produce appellate case law to guide judges in similar cases in the future, in part, because the case law affords judges immense discretion in these cases.

Indeed, some of the really eye popping child support rulings involving a wealthy parent or parents are de facto court sanctions directed at an obstinate wealthy parent whose lawyers overplayed their hand and left a disgusted judge feeling that this parent wants to treat his or her children like Cinderella, when the children deserve better and the wealthy parent can easily afford to pay more. If a wealthy parent is too aggressive it starts to make the judge feel like the parent isn't taking the court seriously, and it makes the judge feel like the wealthy parent isn't litigating in good faith.

Divorce cases are decided by judges sitting in equity, and in equity cases, the litigant who seems to the judge to be acting most reasonably usually wins. When one parent takes very unreasonable stances, the other parent can ask for a lot and still win that battle.

4
  • Great, detailed, and careful response. One minor quibble about word choice: "the economic support that the children would receive if their parents' relationship had remained healthy and the parents treated their children reasonably and equitably." The parents remaining married is not necessarily a healthy relationship and them divorcing is sometimes the healthiest choice. I suggest changing "healthy" to "unchanged" or even rephrasing as "the economic support that the children would receive if their parents had remained married and the parents treated..."
    – Kirt
    Commented Jun 19 at 21:31
  • 2
    @Kirt I'm not reading an implication that "married = healthy". Indeed, as you mention, a married relationship can be acrimonious and unhealthy, and the children can suffer (financially & otherwise) for it. In those cases, the judge might not determine child support on an "unchanged" or "remained married (and unhealthy)" basis, but rather on a (counterfactual) "healthy relationship" basis, where the parents act like reasonable adults jointly contributing to their children's welfare.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jun 19 at 22:41
  • 3
    @Kirt I'm not suggesting that remaining married is actually healthier. Instead, I'm suggesting that the legal standard is basically for a judge to consider how co-parents who counterfactually had a healthy relationship would have provided economically for their children and if counterfactually those co-parents were reasonable and fair. The "if" in that quoted sentence is doing a lot of work in that regard. RM correctly restated what I mean.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 19 at 23:05
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – feetwet
    Commented Jun 24 at 22:15

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .