In this podcast, Heidi Opinsky talks with Jon Maher about child support. She explains the factors that determine the amount of child support payments and how long child support lasts. Then, she outlines how parents can modify their child support arrangements.
John Maher: Hi, I’m John Maher. I’m here today with Heidi Opinsky. Heidi is a divorce and child custody lawyer in Connecticut and New York with over 30 years of legal experience in mediation, collaborative law and litigation and she represents clients in a full spectrum of family law needs. Today we’re talking about child support after divorce. Welcome Heidi.
Heidi Opinsky: Good afternoon, John.
John: So Heidi, what is child support and what is it used for?
Heidi: So child support, as it would sound like, is money and funds that is paid to a custodial parent to assist them in meeting the needs and expenses of a child during their minority. Because after they are no longer minors and they’re emancipated, it’s assumed that they can earn a living or child support might change because they’re in college.
For instance, Connecticut has post-majority support, which happens after a child emancipates. When a child emancipates, that emancipation is different state by state. In New York, emancipation is defined by reaching the age of 21 years. In Connecticut, child support is defined as reaching the age of 18 or graduating high school. If the child turns 18 during the year, it’ll defer to when they graduate high school, but not beyond the age of 19 years. So if you’re obligated to have a decree in New York, you’re going to be paying child support for a longer duration, to the age of 22 years, in Connecticut 18, but not beyond 19.
John: But is that different then if they do decide to go to college say, or is that a different agreement that you have to make to give the child support through college?
Heidi: Okay. So yes, that’s typically negotiated because most parents want their children to be educated and try to get them into college. That’s the dream of every parent. So the child support numbers go to the ages that I said, 18 but not beyond 19 in Connecticut, 21 in New York. And then you negotiate, what are we doing after they reach 21?
I don’t know about you, John, but most 21 year olds that I know, and even my own children that I’ve raised, they’re not prepared to go out into the world at 21 years of age and earn enough to survive the way they’ve grown up and been accustomed to. So most of us end up paying for their support while they’re in college. And in Connecticut, they have a post-majority support statute specifically, and you need to retain jurisdiction and stipulate to that, or the court can’t order it.
That’s very important in Connecticut to retain jurisdiction for post-majority support. And the term is if you had remained in an intact marriage, would you be obligated to pay for college or have your kids go to college? So in Connecticut, post-majority support is college expenses, paying for UCONN. It’s a UCONN cap, what you would pay for the University of Connecticut as an on-campus student and your post-majority support is limited to what you would pay for UCONN.
So almost all agreements, most lawyers know that, and we only stipulate to the UCONN cap and not beyond that, because colleges where my kids went to school, you’re looking at 65 to 70 grand a year easily. And that doesn’t even include all the expenses for them to live and set up their room and to get a computer and to go back and forth to school and the college, to go back home on vacation.
So the statute is 46b-56c in Connecticut. And it’s generally, you pay up to the UCONN cap and that’s all you’re obligated for. So most of us stipulate to that and that limit for our clients who are the monied spouses paying for college. That doesn’t mean you can’t agree to pay whatever a private college and university would ask. And the costs continue to go up year by year, as we know. So in New York, the cap is a university under the New York university system. And it’s limited to that. So you could stipulate to the New York cap.
John: Okay. How is the basic child support determined in terms of who has to pay support and what the amount is in Connecticut and in New York.
Heidi: It’s always the noncustodial parent paying the custodial parent and it’s based upon formulas. So the child support guidelines in New York for instance, are drastically different from the child support guidelines formula in Connecticut, completely different formulas. And it ends up being more heavy handed in New York actually than Connecticut when you look at it and just income wise, et cetera. It’s much more conservative when you look at the numbers under the guidelines in Connecticut versus New York.
John: In terms of the amount that gets paid out?
Heidi: Yes. And it generally is guided by the number of children and the gross incomes of the parents.
John: And can a parent seek modification of child support if their financial situation changes?
Heidi: Yes, if there’s substantial change in financial circumstances, you can seek modification upward or downward for child support. And that’s usually when someone gets terminated from work, they’re let go, they get demoted, they get raises. So it could go upwards or downwards depending on the situation.
John: So does one party in the divorce have to approach the court again and say, “Hey, either my situation has changed or my ex-spouses situation has changed and we need to do this modification.”
Heidi: Yes, it’s a motion for modification of support. And you have to show substantial change in circumstances factually to get before the court. And that’s of course, a discretionary concept for a judge, are they meeting what I consider the bar for substantial change to modify the support? Usually if they lose their job or are terminated, obviously that’s going to be a modification scenario. You can stipulate and agree to change it yourselves and do a modified agreement in the same form as the agreement you had, or you can fight it out in court and get discovery on changed financial circumstances. Usually the attorneys on both sides are going to exchange discovery to see if this is true and accurate or a pretense.
Maybe they’re getting remarried and they just don’t want to pay the support anymore. You know, you don’t get to do that. You don’t get to decide I’m just getting remarried, so I’m not going to pay support anymore. So that wouldn’t be a basis for a substantial change. That’s a choice and a discretionary choice that you make, but you don’t get to bail on your prior family and children because of that. That wouldn’t be something that they would consider as the sole basis to modify. It may impact it.
John: Right. But like you said, it’s a matter of whether or not this is something out of your control that happened, like you got laid off, as opposed to, like you said, a choice that you made to remarry.
Heidi: Child support is always modifiable, first of all, so you can’t write it in stone and keep it in stone. It’s always modifiable. And it’s modified because of these reasons: children grow and have more needs usually when they grow; their expenses increase and inflate and parent’s jobs change and their careers change and their incomes change. So it’s always modifiable.
You do, though, have to show substantial change in circumstances. And that could be, you have an illness, you lost your job, you got a raise, you got demoted. It can’t be, “Well, I’m going to take a job. I’m now earning $350,000 a year as a partner in a firm. And now I’m going to go and be a teacher and earn 70 grand a year or 80 grand a year because I don’t want to pay your support anymore.” If they see it as being intentional, they can decide, the court, meaning the court can decide, that this was intentional to avoid a support obligation and decide I’m going to keep you at the same rate. I’m not going to modify it.
John: So you could then end up with a much lower paying job, but still having to pay that larger amount of support, because that was your choice. You made that choice.
Heidi: Most family cases are very fact sensitive. And the courts look at a whole host of factors on how this occurred. Why did it happen? Is it legitimate? And they’re not looking to bootstrap people, to make it impossible for them to live on a day-to-day basis financially. On the other hand, if they didn’t have these kinds of guidelines and rules and factors to look at, you could… well, imagine someone could just decide they fell in love with someone else, and they’re not paying for their first family because they’re going to start a new family. And the other family you’re out to lunch. You’re off the team. You don’t get any more of the support. People will do that. If the opportunity is there, they will do that.
Heidi: I guarantee that. There’s very little that I guarantee, but if given an out, people are generally selfish in some respects. And when it comes to marriage and families, people are off the team every day. And if these guidelines and factors and rules weren’t there, you’d be off the team and you’d be living in the streets and the taxpayers of the state would be having to pay for you.
John: All right. Well, that’s really great information, Heidi. Thanks again for speaking with me today.
Heidi: Thank you.
John: And for more information, you can visit Heidi’s website at ctnydivorcelawyer.com or call the law offices of Heidi E Opinsky LLC at 203-653-3542.