The New Changes in Florida’s Complicated Child Support Laws
During the 2010 session, the Florida legislature considered two bills aimed at making significant changes to Florida’s alimony and child support laws. Eventually, the two bills were merged into one and the new bill passed both the Senate and House before being signed into law by the Governor. While the alimony modifications became effective July 1, 2010, the child support changes begin to take effect on October 1. The yet-to-be-tested child support requirements include several major changes. For parents affected by the new law, these changes will add more wrinkles to the complex process of setting up a child support framework.
The Details of Child Support Changes
The first change in Florida’s child support laws is meant to reduce the need for the filing of modification petitions each time a child reaches the age of majority. For families with two or more children under the age of 18, guidelines for child support provisions in settlements or final judgments must now include the child support guidelines amount and also the remaining child support payable after each child reaches the age of 18. This change makes any reductions automatic, thus reducing the need for filing modification petitions. At the outset, support must be based on the income of the parents at the time of the divorce. Petitions for modification may still be filed by either parent, but the month, day and year of any reductions must be stated.
Another change represents a codification of existing appellate court decisions rather than a major departure from existing law. This section sets out the purpose for child support as fulfilling the mutual obligation of both parents to support their minor or legally dependent children, and is meant merely as a restatement or clarification of how child support decisions have been handled in the past.
A major change is the requirement of imputation of income to any parent voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, or who fails to participate in the child support case. Normally, child support awards are based on the income of both parents; ‘imputing’ income essentially means that a parent will be assumed to be earning a certain level of income, whatever the amount of their actual income. The new statute creates a presumption that a voluntarily unemployed/underemployed or nonparticipating parent’s imputed income level will be at a level equivalent to the median income of full-time workers as determined from U.S. Bureau of the Census reports.
Under previous law, while automatic imputation did not exist, there was a presumption that income could be imputed at the minimum wage level under federal law. In effect, the new change approximately doubles the imputed income that can be used in calculating child support. An important note is that the Courts specifically retained the power to impute a higher income based upon proof that a party could earn more income than provided for in the statute, but voluntarily refused to do so. This change makes it more difficult for parents to decrease income levels intentionally in an effort to pay less in child support. Only minor changes were made to the child support guidelines schedule. If the parents’ combined income falls below the bottom range in guidelines, the court must set child support on a case by case basis; the base can be modified if the parents begin to make more money.
Change to Overnight Provision
A very significant change effected by the new statute has to do with the adjustment of child support based on the amount of ‘overnights’ each parent has with a child. This new provision requires the adjustment of standard child support in every case in which the parent with fewer overnights has at least 20 percent or more of the total overnights. Thus, if a child spends more than 20 percent of nights with a parent who overall receives fewer overnights, a tiered structure kicks in to adjust the calculation of child support. Previously, that parent had to have at least 40 percent of overnights in order to obtain an adjustment. This change will usually benefit the parent who has fewer overnights.
What You Should Do
Clearly, the process of determining child support is a complex and technical undertaking. The new statute, while aimed at addressing certain problems in the child support system, adds even more knots to an already difficult process. If you or a loved one is going through a divorce or contesting a child support arrangement, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. However, the assistance of an experienced attorney can prove invaluable. An attorney will be able to untangle the process and explain it in simple terms. Furthermore, an attorney can help ensure child support payments are set at a fair amount, and can assist in negotiating all aspects of child support or parental responsibility/time-sharing arrangements.
Child support laws can seem like a jungle of unfamiliar concepts. But, with the help of an experienced attorney, the fog will be lifted and you can be well on your way to the child support arrangement you deserve.