What Do Courts Consider When Modifying Child Support Obligations

It is no secret that divorce is difficult. In any number of ways, the process of taking one shared lifestyle and dividing it into two separate ones can be stressful. And even in the best of circumstances, it is not without its challenges. This can be especially true if the couple seeking a divorce have children together. Most couples, understandably, want the best for their children. This means doing what they can to ensure that their children are able to make it through the transitions of divorce while experiencing the least amount of stress possible.

The two primary issues that arise, with respect to children during a divorce, are child support and child custody. Both are issues that can be difficult for the parties to work through, but both are very important to think through carefully. Turning our attention (for the time being) to child support, we note that this matter, like any matter involving children, is of particular importance.

How Is Child Support Determined?

One of the benefits of our legal system today is that there are many avenues by which the parties can arrive at a resolution that is satisfactory to everyone involved. Attorneys are increasingly specializing in methods of alternative dispute resolution like mediation and collaborative law to resolve issues. As a result, it is entirely possible for a couple, seeking a divorce, to discuss and arrive at an agreed child support amount without the intervention of a court at all. This allows the parties, who know their children’s needs and lifestyle best, to determine a support obligation that would best suit those needs.

In other circumstances, however, the parties simply can’t reach an agreement on their own. In those situations, the determination will ultimately be made by the court. In some states like Iowa, there are administrative branches such as the Child Support Recovery Unit (CSRU) that assist the court in making these determinations, which are ultimately signed off on by the court. While every state is unique, the court essentially arrives at the amount by reviewing the income of both parents, which parent has custody of the children, and the number of children involved.

It is not at all unusual for a child support amount to be determined, only to have life circumstances change later. This is particularly true in our fluid economy where the job market is often up and down, and income amounts may change with some frequency. Of course, lifestyle changes often occur, too. One or both parties may remarry, children grow older, and any other number of unexpected twists and turns may occur. In these circumstances, parties often want to know if previously determined child support obligations can be modified.

Can Child Support Be Modified?

The short answer to this question, of course, is “yes.” Of course, as with many legal matters, modifying child support is often not as simple as merely requesting it – that is, if you have a court-ordered obligation. If you have come to an agreement on your own with your spouse regarding child support, then making a modification will require simply changing the contractual agreement between the two of you – if you are both on the same page and agree that the change is necessary. Certainly, this is an advantage of agreeing upon the obligation yourselves.

On the other hand, if the child support obligation in your divorce is court-ordered, then that obligation can ultimately only be modified by the court itself. As with the initial determination of child support, modification standards and procedures will vary from state to state. Generally, however, what is required is:

  • Notifying the Court of the Request for Modification: The method of making this notification will vary from state to state. In Iowa, for example, the party requesting the modification will fill out a form entitled “Request to Modify a Child Support Order.” This notifies the Child Support Recovery Unit (and later, the court and interested parties) that a modification has been requested.
  • Making the Request for Modification within the Necessary Time Frame: Typically, each state has rules and guidelines for a timeline during which the requests must be made. It is important to check the rules in your state to see when you may make the request. In some states, for example, you may not request a modification of child support within two years of entry of the order or the last request for modification.
  • Making Your Request on the Necessary Grounds: Each state has slightly different rules and timelines on when a modification of support is warranted. But essentially, the party seeking the modification must prove a substantial change in circumstances that warrants the modification. In Iowa, for example, this can be shown on three varying grounds:
  • Review and Adjustment of Child Support: To make this request, you must establish that there has been a change in circumstances that would cause the amount of child support to go up or down by more than 20%. You must also establish that the change has lasted for three months and will probably last at least three more. In this situation, CSRU will only consider an adjustment if it has been at least two years since the last time the amount of child support was changed.
  • Administrative Modification: In some situations where circumstances have changed quickly and significantly, modification may be sought at any time. This is if it can be established that either parent’s income has gone up or down by 50% or more.
  • Suspension of Child Support: If lifestyle circumstances change since the order was entered (for example, if the parents reconcile and begin living together again, or the children begin residing with the person ordered to pay support). In these circumstances, a parent can request that the support order be suspended and/or eventually terminated.

Ultimately, either parent can file a petition to modify child support. It is always wise, if you are seeking to modify support, to seek the advice of a trusted attorney who can advise you as to what is required by the law in your jurisdiction. There are many steps to the modification process, and there is no guarantee the request to change the order will be granted. But seeking the advice of counsel will be helpful in ensuring that you take all of the steps necessary to put your best foot forward toward obtaining the modification you need.