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Child Support and the Deviation

Spicer v. Spicer, 607 S.E2d 678 (2005)

North Carolina child support cases are mostly handled by guidelines that set a presumption on what each parent can pay after considering income, some expenses, and percentage of physical custody. But the guidelines are not the final word in child support. Certain income levels move the case out of the guideline range. And in other cases, a parent may request a deviation from the guidelines. In those cases, the Court must consider four things: 1) what the presumptive award would be under the guideline; 2) what the reasonable needs for the children are and how much can each parent afford to pay; 3) whether the presumptive award would meet or exceed the reasonable needs of the child when considering the parent’s ability to pay; and 4) make findings of fact on whether the Court decides to deviate or not.

Before the Court is able to deviate, it must make findings with enough specificity that support the decision. In Spicer v. Spicer, that was the issue. In those findings which the Court must specifically state, it must consider the needs of the children’s health, education, and maintenance. But at the same time, they need to consider the parents’ abilities to pay and the role and contributions of each party in raising the children. Finally, the Court must consider the accustomed standard of living of the children and parties. The statute (NCGS 50-13.4) instructs that each factor ought to be included in the findings.

The above case also sheds light on what standard of living can consist of: gifts, clothes, vacations, restaurant meals, and entertainment and recreation. No doubt a wealthier family can afford greater expenses in those categories. What has always been puzzling is the timeframe for when the Court should consider these facts, especially since it is typically the Court’s task to determine what the child support should be going forward in time. Child support is arguably the replacement for what an intact family could provide the children in financial terms. In an ideal world, child support cases would be heard and finalized shortly after the separation of the parties, and it would be easy to see the numbers for expenses while the family was a single unit. But separations are not so clean, and cases may stall. Families adjust their spending accordingly.

Nonetheless, we learn from our past. Many cases look at historical expenses, going forward to the present, when considering the needs of the child and the accustomed standard of living. Real numbers from these expenses likely determine what is a reasonable need. But perhaps numbers from the intact-family timeframe could prove useful, if they are not too far removed from current and the income variables remain similar.