What is Child Support in Arizona?
The basic theory underlying child support in Arizona is that a child should receive the maximum benefit of that child’s parents’ income. Courts attempt to redistribute money received by the parents while taking into account how much time a child spends with each parent. In effect, child support is supposed to help offset the cost of caring for a child at roughly the standard of living the child would receive if the parents were together.
Raising a child is expensive. Expenses include anything from school lunches, to daycare and/or after-school care, to medical insurance, to clothing to food, to simple toys or entertainment. Placing the financial burden of these expenses entirely or largely on one parent is unfair. Child support is supposed to make it more fair.
For example, imagine a one parent earns $150,000 per year, and the other parent earns minimum wage. If those parties were living together and remained in a relationship, their child would inherently be receiving the benefit of both parties’ income. But if they lived separately and the child lived with lower-income parent 100% of the time, the child would not be receiving any of the benefit of the $150,000 per year that the higher-income parent was earning.
It is important to support your child. You shouldn’t lay the entire financial burden of raising a child on someone else, be it the mother or the father. With that said, child support is frequently used as a weapon. Many parents will withhold a child from the other parent, and then use the time the other parent wasn’t able to see the child as a claim that the parent is entitled to more money. This situation is equally unjust.
How is the Amount of Child Support in Arizona Determined?
Arizona law requires the use of a child support calculation to determine a presumptive child support amount. The calculation takes into account the age of any child between the parties, the amount of money each parent makes (including income or loss from spousal maintenance—aka alimony), the amount of time each parent sees the child, and any medical, daycare, or other special expenses either parent incurs on behalf of the child. The Arizona Supreme Court has created a calculator to help run the calculation, available here.
One of the biggest sticking points in determining a child support calculation can be the income of the parents. If both parents are employed full time in a job that matches their earning potential, and both receive W-2 wages, determining income is easy. All you have to do is see everyone’s paystubs. Complications arise when a parent is underemployed or self-employed. Underemployed could mean a parent is only working part time when they could be working full time, or that they are not utilizing their skill set to maximize their wages-like a parent who is a doctor, but decides to work minimum wage at a retail store. In the situation of an underemployed parent, we may engage an expert to interview the underemployed parent and prepare a report as to that parent’s earning potential. In the case of a self-employed parent, we may engage a forensic accountant to review the self-employed parent’s business records and make sure the income is not being underreported.
Once the calculation is determined, Arizona Courts will generally order as a child support amount, the number listed in the child support calculation. If you show the Court good cause to do so, or if the parties agree on a child support amount and the Court doesn’t feel it’s contrary to the best interests of your child, it is possible to deviate from the presumptive amount of child support generated by the calculation.
Why Should I Have to Pay for Daycare When I Am Available to Watch My Child?
It can feel incredibly unfair when the other parent places your child in daycare instead of letting you have parenting time. If this is a regular occurrence, it may be time to modify your parenting time order. A good parenting plan will include language the addresses this issue by requiring a parent to give the other parent first right of refusal to watch the child before engaging a babysitter or daycare.
How Do I Establish an Order for Child Support in Arizona?
When a party wants to establish an order for child support in Arizona, someone must file a petition with the Court asking for child support. This can be done by either parent. In some cases, the Attorney General will file the petition if the child is receiving some form of state assistance, such as AHCCCS. A petition can be filed within an Arizona divorce case, a case to establish paternity, or can simply show up as an action for nothing but child support.
Some important questions must be determined by the Court during the case. For example, the Court must determine whether or not Arizona is the appropriate jurisdiction to enter a child support order. The Court must also ensure that it has some evidence supporting each of the numbers that are entered into a child support calculation. The judge may have a trial or evidentiary hearing in which both parties are required to show their paystubs, tax returns, daycare receipts, or anything else that is relevant to the calculation.
That Court process will culminate in an Order entered by the Court. The Court will use the process outlined above (using the child support calculation or a deviation) and turn that number into an order to pay. If the Court requires that payments be made through Arizona’s Support Payment Clearinghouse (which it almost always does) then there will be a $5.00 per month fee added to the child support amount.
The Court may also enter an Order for back child support in Arizona (generally called, “arrears”). If there are arrears ordered, the Order should list an amount that must be paid each month towards the arrears.
What Happens With Medical Expenses That Aren’t Covered By Insurance?
While the child support calculation takes into account who is paying for the premiums on insurance for the children, it does not directly incorporate amounts that are paid out-of-pocket for medical expenses. Because such expenses are inherently unpredictable, the order that establishes child support has to indicate how much each parent is to pay towards medical, dental, or vision costs that are not covered by insurance. Generally this follows each party’s pro-rata share of the child support obligation which comes out of the child support worksheet.
For example, mom might be obligated to pay 40% of unreimbursed medical expenses and dad could be required to pay 60%. So if dad were to take a child to the doctor and had to pay a copay of $100.00 to the doctor (an amount not covered by insurance, nor included in the premium), he is entitled to receive 40% of the payment, or $40, back from mom.
In order to obtain compensation from the other party for unreimbursed medical expenses, the party seeking compensation must provide the other parent with notice of the request within 180 days of the date the medical service was provided. The paying party is entitled to receive receipts evidencing the payments made. Then, the paying parent must make a payment for his or her share of the expenses within 45 days of receiving the request.
Are Travel Costs Accounted For In Child Support Orders?
If the parents are in relatively close proximity to each other, then there is no accounting for costs to transport children back and forth between the parents. However, in situations where the distance is in excess of 100 miles one-way, the court has the ability to order that costs for the travel be allocated in a certain way. There is a fair amount of discretion that the court has in how such an order be crafted. It can take into consideration such things as the income of each parent or who created the need to travel in the first place (e.g., one parent moved away and created the need to travel in the first place). A.R.S. 25-320 App. 18.
For example, if both parents lived in Phoenix, then dad moved to Seattle, it would become necessary to get plane tickets to transport the children back and forth between the parents. So the court could order that dad pay for the tickets since he is the one that moved and created the need to purchase tickets. The court could also say that if mom made significantly more money than dad, that mom contribute to the cost by paying some percentage of the tickets.
Can We Agree to Do Child Support Without Going to Court?
It is possible to simply make an agreement regarding child support without obtaining a Court order. However, we encourage a parent paying child support to seek a child support order. The reason is this: When a child support order is established, the court has the ability to make that order retroactive up to the 3 years. A.R.S. 25-320(C). If the court decides that what you were paying without an order is not what you should have been paying, it can go back in time and assess a lot more in arrears. This means that if you have a child and wait on getting a child support order, the other parent could seek a child support order years down the road and get an enormous judgment against you for up to 3 years of arrears. Three years of arrears could reach amounts like $40,000, depending on what your support deficiency is deemed to be. Add in the 10% interest rate assessed on arrears in Arizona and that is a real financial boat anchor. We feel it is better to be proactive, nail down a child support order, and avoid the potential for a financially devastating arrears judgment.
Once an Arizona Child Support Order Is Entered, Can It Be Reduced or Increased?
An existing order for child support in Arizona can be modified anytime there are “changed circumstances that are substantial and continuing . . . .” A.R.S. § 25-327(A). Section 24(A) of the Arizona Child Support Guidelines holds that a 15% change in the amount of child support is evidence of a substantial and continuing change in circumstances.
If you have these changed circumstances, either party can go back to the Court and file a petition to modify the previous child support Order. At that point, the Court will go through the same essential process involved in establishing the Order. At the end, it will modify the child support order based on the new circumstances and using the same process involving the child support calculation or deviation.
Note that unlike spousal maintenance, the substantial and continuing change in circumstances can relate back to correction of errors in an old support order. Birnstihl v. Birnstihl, _Ariz._, _P.3d_, CA-CV 17-0278 (Ct. App. 2018). For example, if you discover that a child support worksheet was entered along with your last child support order that had errors in it, and correction of those errors would result in a new child support number that is at least a 15% change from the previously ordered amount, then you can proceed with a modification, even if nothing else has changed since the entry of the previous order.