When you determine custody and visitation for the first time, you usually do so either as part of a custody agreement or a court order. Either way, it’s binding and you have to follow it. For most families, at the very beginning tensions are at their highest, but things tend to relax a bit along the way. A well-drafted agreement can go a long way toward easing tensions because both families know what to expect.
A sloppy agreement or a court order doesn’t necessarily go as far towards easing tensions because, usually, things are vague, less flexible, or include fewer details, leaving the parties to squabble over small details that were omitted (whether intentionally or unintentionally) but not big enough to go back to court to re-litigate or to generally wallow in uncertainty.
For most families, an initial determination of custody doesn’t last forever. One (or both) parties need to modify custody later on. If the parties are agreeable, they can agree to make changes, with or without an updated court order or agreement. It may not be binding in a legal sense, but there’s no rule that says you have to go to court or even update your agreement if you don’t want to. If things are amicable between the two of you, you can agree NOT to modify things in this way. And, of course, if it doesn’t work out and you realize you really can’t just agree on your own, there is always the possibility to negotiate a new agreement and/or litigate to get an updated court order.
I can’t say I know what ‘most’ people do. I see cases where the parties can’t agree. Does this represent a majority or minority? Really, I’m not sure. But the point is, if you can’t agree, there’s help for you.
Custody, visitation, and child support are modifiable based on a material change in circumstances
Usually, the court wants to see that some time has passed since the last order or modification; typically, 6 months to a year is enough. Then, on top of that, the court needs to see that there has been a material change. What, exactly, constitutes a material change is something that is going to be broadly construed – meaning that the court takes an open-minded view – in the light of what is in the child’s best interests. If it impacts the children, whether positively or negatively, it is a material change and worthy of consideration in a modification.
It’s never about the impact on the parents. Something may be a material change for one or both parents that isn’t necessarily a material change for the child(ren) or, even if it is, doesn’t necessarily warrant a change in custody or visitation.
Custody and visitation of teens and pre-teens
There’s a lot more information out there about custody of small children than there is about custody and visitation of teenagers. But there are a LOT of complicated things about raising teenagers – like what happens when they start driving, how to handle cell phones and location services, and extracurricular activities. Teenagers start to have a lot more opinions about what they will and won’t do, and tend to be much more rebellious.
Whether you’re the ‘preferred’ parent and they’d rather live with you more or whether they think dad is a whole heck of a lot more fun, chances are you have been on the receiving end of some undeserved ire. It’s difficult – not to mention absolutely miserable – to force a teenager to follow a court order when she is refusing to do so. Even though you really are supposed to make sure a child follows the court order, there is also a lack of control at the point that the child gets a driver’s license and can more or less go where she chooses to go.
Teenagers become difficult to control; it kind of goes with the territory. That can make coparenting extra challenging and can create new issues that you haven’t experienced up until this point. Each family is different – just like each child is different – so you’re going to have to keep an open mind, be flexible, and communicate (always communicate!) with your child’s father regarding her whereabouts. (One of the WORST things that can happen in coparenting is that the child tells each parent she’s with the other parent, but the parents don’t communicate, and in the meantime she’s out somewhere else, getting into trouble.)
Child support is modifiable, too, and a lot of things can change financially for a teenager.
My mom likes to tell me how cheap babies are compared to teenagers. She says it a LOT, so I guess it must be true. (Although I’m pretty sure she’d balk at the amount I pay for childcare and tuition, but … ) In some ways, it’s true, especially once they reach school age, and even more so if you have children who are in public school.
In high school, though, there are all sorts of extra expenses – especially once they reach the end of high school. There are yearbooks, class rings, prom and homecoming dresses, AP test fees, college application fees, and tons more – and it all adds up.
I’ve actually seen moms ask for temporary upward deviations in child support in the teenage years because of the extreme expenses incurred by their kids. I’m not talking here about medical expenses; for medically complex children, the costs incurred by the parents are already shared and not part of the child support obligation.
Upward deviations in child support aren’t common, but I have seen it happen. (Downward deviations are, of course, a thing, too, but are even less likely; I can’t think of a time I’ve seen less-than-guideline ordered by the court. If it did happen, it would likely be agreed upon by the parents. I would never recommend accepting less.)
Depending on what your specific expenses are, it may be worth talking to a lawyer about getting MORE child support, especially in those later (expensive!) years of high school. College applications aren’t cheap – and neither are AP exams and all those other things you have to do to prepare for graduation. Even those stupid cardboard hats and plastic gowns cost WAY more than they should.
But, chances are, your child’s father isn’t expecting to pay more – he’s counting down the months until he can pay less. Or nothing at all.
Typical, right? In my experience, dads are mostly focused with paying as little as humanly possible, while moms are interested in giving their children everything they can. I can’t tell you how many moms I’ve met with who tell me that they can pay for huge things on tiny salaries even without their child’s father’s contribution, while the dads refuse even the smallest additional contributions. Cliché, maybe, but also, in my experience, entirely accurate.
What about if my child has a job? Does that mean that my child’s father can pay less in support?
To put it simply: no.
Child support is money that PARENTS pay for the support of their children. Whatever money your child earns at a job – even if she earns a substantial amount of money – is hers. Even if she pays some rent or contributes towards household expenses, her own gas, or car insurance, that does not mean that there will be a corresponding reduction in child support.
She – the child, I mean – has no obligation to pay towards her own support while she is still a minor. Though you and your child’s father might make an arrangement about how you’ll handle her earnings (or you may even do this on your own, without his contribution), that doesn’t mean that the money the child has somehow should go towards child support.
To me, it doesn’t even make sense that this money would be counted towards anything. But a dad – a sort of super distant family friend – recently asked me, so I figured I would share. (Full disclosure: when he asked, it was very hard for me to conceal my absolute disgust at the question.) What his child was earning was probably nominal in the extreme – why should he think that it would reduce HIS child support obligation? He – who has a real life, grown-up job – wants to make his literal teenager pay for her own child support so he doesn’t have to?
Anyway, the answer is no. What goes into the child support calculation is how much you earn, how much he earns, how many children are supporting, what type of parenting plan you have in place (shared physical custody versus primary physical custody), how much goes towards work-related childcare (in the case of teenagers, this is usually $0 so you see much lower guideline support figures anyway), and healthcare costs for the children only.
The amount she might earn at a job is irrelevant in terms of child support. It is hers, even if she contributes in small ways.
Is there any way that the money she earns at her job might be relevant?
I would say, though, that if mom and dad are sharing the cost of car insurance and she gets a job, it would be reasonable to ask her to pay that expense out of her earnings – and then for mom and dad to stop paying for it. But that is not a cost that is included in guideline child support, so it wouldn’t reduce child support. It would just reduce, or eliminate, another line item.
I’d also use that money, to the extent that she has it, to make her responsible for any damage she causes. Any tickets, driver improvement, court fees, or deductibles could be something that you make her pay, or make her pay towards. (It may be that her earnings alone are not enough to cover these things, so that might be something you discuss.)
It might also be reasonable to require her to take a certain percentage of her earnings and save it. Say your family rule is that she can keep 50% but she has to save 50%. If you want to have specific rules about how/where/when the saved money can be spent – like, for example, that it’ll be used to pay towards books when she gets to college, or that it’ll account for her spending money in college – you could do that, too. Though Virginia doesn’t require that parents pay for college tuition, many parents do choose – though, usually, not through agreement in writing – to share those costs in some way.
You could use the money she saves to help contribute towards those costs. You certainly don’t have to, but I am personally a big proponent of helping to teach children (and, yes, even at 16, 17, and even arguably, 18, they’re still mostly children and need a LOT of guidance) some of their own, independent fiscal responsibility.
The money we earn isn’t all earmarked for fun, after all. Whether you’re 17 or 27 or 47 or 107, that’s still true.
When does child support end?
Child support ends when a child graduates from high school or turns 19, whichever occurs first.
That one is actually pretty straightforward! Also, I feel compelled to add: it’s no one’s business how you spend your child support.
I hope that helps. For more information, or to request a copy of our custody book for Virginia moms, give us a call a 757-425-5200 or visit our website. I’ve written a lot on child support over the years, so feel free to check out any blogs and articles on support as well.