California law operates under a set of guidelines in child support cases that is used to calculate a parent’s support obligations based primarily on each parent’s income and time with the child. The overall aim of the guidelines is to set the support at an amount that attempts to equalize the living standard in both homes. The guidelines calculation is generally presumed to be correct, but there are some circumstances in which a court may choose to order support at an amount lower than the calculated rate. As the Fifth District Court of Appeals recently explained, that includes situations in which the paying parent has an “extraordinarily high income,” and the guideline amount is more than the child needs.
Mother and Father’s four-year marriage was annulled in 2004, after it was found that Mother was still married to her first husband. They had two daughters: one born during the marriage, and the other born in 2008. Mother lived in Bakersfield with the children, as well as with a son that she had with her previous Husband and another daughter that Father had from a previous marriage. Father paid Mother more than $17,500 in child support per month for his three children. As a member of the Manuel Band of Mission Indians, Father received annual distributions from the tribe based on its profits from a casino. That money often totaled more than $2 million per year, according to the Court. He wasn’t employed and didn’t have any other sources of income.
Mother went to court in 2012, asking a judge to order Father to pay her at least the guideline child support amount of about $20,000 per month for the couple’s two daughters. The court declined, setting the amount instead at roughly $12,500. It said that the amount “would adequately ensure that the children’s needs will be provided for.” Mother had been receiving nearly this amount from Father for the two kids prior to the ruling, the court said, and failed to show that it wasn’t enough to meet the children’s needs.
Affirming the decision on appeal, the Fifth District said there was sufficient evidence to support the lower court’s decision to deviate from the guidelines. Since the term “extraordinarily high income” isn’t defined in the guidelines, the Court said the state legislature must have wanted to leave it to the courts discretion to determine whether a parent meets this standard. That includes deciding whether to consider average incomes in the parent’s local area or in the entire state when making this determination, according to the Court. In this case, the trial court looked at incomes in the county in which Father lived. It determined that only 2.5 percent of households in the county had incomes of $200,000 or more at the time.
The trial court also found that the full guideline amount was more than the children’s historical expenses. Mother had argued that Father should be forced to pay up now in order to secure the kids’ financial well-being in the future because he’d proved to be unable to manage his own money. The Court observed, however, that the money from the casino was a steady source of annual income, and there was no reason to believe that those distributions would be cut off. “Had the source of Father’s income been in peril, the analysis of the children’s financial security during their minority might have been different,” the Court said.
As this case makes clear, if you are quite wealthy, there can be some wiggle room in the child support guidelines. If you’re considering a divorce in California or facing support and custody issues, it is imperative that you seek the advice and counsel of an experienced family law attorney. With offices throughout the Bay Area, California divorce lawyer Lorna Jaynes provides innovative legal tools to resolve family law disputes without the bitterness and acrimony engendered by the adversarial process.
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