Mediation is an ideal process for making parenting and child support decisions without court involvement. It allows the focus to remain on the family’s financial realities and parenting values. Courts, on the other hand, will likely apply the child support guidelines without considering fully a family’s financial realities.
In New York State, both parents are required to financially support their children until they are 21 years old or are emancipated. This financial support is commonly referred to as child support. The premise behind child support is that children benefit when both parents are responsible for the financial support of their children, and that the children’s standard of living should not be disrupted by the changes in their parents’ relationship.
The Child Support Standards Act, also referred to as the CSSA, governs child support in New York. The CSSA guidelines for child support have two main components. There is “basic support” which is designed to cover expenses such as providing a home, food, clothing, and necessary living expenses for the children and “statutory add-ons” such as health insurance premiums, unreimbursed medical expenses, childcare expenses necessary for the custodial parent to work or attend school, and certain educational expenses. Child support is not taxable to the recipient.
The CSSA guidelines assume that one parent will be designated as the “custodial” parent and will receive child support from the other parent. The custodial parent is the parent who cares for the children more than 50% of the time. When parents share the care of their children equally, child support still must be addressed. Under the CSSA the higher earning parent would pay basic child support to the other parent.
The amount of basic child support is calculated as a percentage of the parents’ “total combined income.” Income is defined as money reportable on a federal tax return including employment wages, investment income, Social Security, and unemployment compensation. Expenses deducted from income include spousal support, child support paid for other children, NYC or Yonkers city tax, Medicaid and Social Security (FICA) tax, and some unreimbursed business expenses. The net amount is then used to calculate child support and the pro rata amount each parent will contribute toward statutory add-on expenses.
The CSSA guideline formula applies to the parents’ combined annual income to a cap, which is currently set at $154,000. Often a court will apply the CSSA guidelines formula to parental income over the CSSA cap.
The mediation process allows the parents to determine for themselves how much, if any, of their income over the CSSA cap will be used to determine basic child support, and how to address child support when the parenting plan is close to, if not fully equal between the parents especially given the financial realities of having two households to support. Deviation from the guidelines requires specific reasons.
The amount of combined family income designated for child support is based on the number of children: 17% for one child; 25% for two children; 29% for three children; 31% for four children and not less than 35% for five or more children.
While basic child support is meant to cover children’s basic living expenses, many child-related expenses are not covered by the guidelines. For example, the costs of optional tutoring, sports, and other extra-curricular activities are not included in CSSA. The CSSA does not explicitly state how these expenses are to be covered and many parents will share these expenses on a pro-rata basis. In the mediation process, parents have the flexibility to decide how they will cover expenses for these discretionary activities.