The Virginia General Assembly recently voted to make changes to the Virginia child support statute, which hasn’t been significantly altered since 1988. It’s a pretty big deal! As you can probably imagine, the costs of living have risen in the years since 1988, and the costs of raising a child have raised along with it. It’s a really long time for the child support guidelines to go along relatively unchanged, so it’s interesting to see the changes that are being made.
What changes will we see to Virginia child support laws in 2014?
1. The minimum level of child support will change.
The table titled “Schedule of Basic Monthly Support Obligations has changed in two ways. First, the minimum child support obligation is different. Before July 1, 2014, the basic minimum child support obligation was $65 per month. The new law changes this by removing the minimum number and allowing the judge to set a minimum child support figure that can be raised depending on the number of children needing support. If the paying parent’s income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty level, the judge has the authority to set the minimum child support below the presumptive minimum support obligation figure. This gives the judge a lot of flexibility in determining child support arrangements.
Though the judge has this authority, that doesn’t mean that a paying parent whose income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty level will automatically receive a downward deviation. Obviously, regardless of the income your child’s father receives, a certain amount of child support is necessary to provide sufficient support for the child. Although the judge has more discretion in these types of cases than previously, judges are supposed to pay attention to the child support awards they issue. The statute directs the judge not to set the amount so low that it “seriously impairs the custodial parent’s ability to provide minimal adequate housing and provide other basic necessities for the child.”
2. Child support guidelines will be updated.
Obviously, since 1988, things have changed, and many judges and attorneys have loudly advocated for a change in the child support guidelines. Although we aren’t seeing sweeping reform, or hearing talks about how child support will be increased in all cases, it’s probably a move in a positive direction.
Under the new child support guidelines, the specific circumstances of an individual’s case can ultimately result in a higher or lower child support award.
These guidelines will probably mean that parties with larger incomes, over $14,000 per month, will have to pay substantially more in child support. The new guidelines contemplate these higher-earning parties in a way that the former child support guidelines did not, and bring the amount of child support high-earning Virginians receive closer in line with neighboring states, like D.C. and Maryland.
3. Parents will share equal responsibility for unreimbursed medical expenses.
Under the current child support laws, the custodial parent pays for the first $250 in unreimbursed medical expenses in a calendar year and then, after that, the parents share in these expenses equally.
Under the new law, which will go into effect on July 1, the parents share in unreimbursed medical expenses equally from the first dollar in proportion to their incomes, without the old $250 baseline for which the custodial parent was responsible.
Are these good changes?
It’s hard to tell ahead of time how a new law is going to affect people across the board. It is obvious that this change doesn’t automatically raise child support obligations for every person petitioning for them. The new law does seem to impact people on the very, very high and very, very low end of the spectrum far more than it affects those of us who are situated somewhere in the middle.
If your child’s father is a low wage earner (or doesn’t earn anything at all), the change allowing the judge to deviate downwards from the previously-established minimum level of child support probably won’t do you any favors. Still, remember that the law does allow the judge to use his discretion and encourages the judge to think about what amount of child support would be necessary to help provide minimal adequate housing and the child’s basic needs. Your argument regarding what the child (or children) need to be adequately provided for would be important in this type of case.
For moms in families with higher incomes, these changes look more advantageous, particularly in the very high range of the income spectrum.
Since moms are typically the custodial parents, it’s beneficial for most of our clients that the initial $250 in unreimbursed medical expenses is no longer a burden exclusive to the custodial parent. It’s better for many of our clients that these expenses be shared based on the income of the parties.
Like anything else, we’re going to have to do some waiting and seeing before we can definitively say how good the laws are, and identify trends in how they affect our clients.
What if I already have a child support order in place?
If you already have a child support order in place, you may want to talk to an attorney about whether or not you’d like to modify it.
In most cases, you can’t ask for modification of your child support award unless you identify a material change in circumstances (like moving, a promotion or demotion, remarriage, or some other similar event). The court requires the “material change in circumstances” to prevent people from being able to continuously petition the court for changes that make little or no difference, and reserving the court’s time for modifications that will result in more substantial changes. Because the law is changing, the court is allowing people to petition for a change in support without identifying a material change. The statutory change is enough to get you in the door, but you’ll have to wait until after July 1st to petition the court. Otherwise, the old guidelines will still be in effect.
But would making a petition increase your child support award? Obviously, you don’t want to make a petition to change child support if it’s going to reduce the amount of child support you receive. As you can tell from reading this article, in some cases, it will raise the amount of child support you receive, particularly if your husband is a very high earner. In others, it won’t. Still, though, the judge has a lot more discretion now than formerly, so you’ll want an attorney at your side to help articulate the reasons why you need an increased support arrangement.
What if I don't already have a child support order in place?
If you don't already have a child support order in place and your case is determined before July 1st, your child support will be determined by the old guidelines. If your case will be determined after July 1st, you will be subject to the new guidelines. How do you know whether you'd receive more or less? Well, the best way to know what you should do is to meet with an attorney to talk about your case. If you would like to meet with one of our licensed and experienced divorce and custody attorneys to talk about your child support, please give our office a call at (757) 425-5200. We can run the new guidelines and talk to you about what will happen so that you can make the best decision for you under the circumstances.