Mom Appeals Order Awarding her $25K per Month in Child Support, and Wins
$24,000.00 per month is a lot of money, particularly when it is non-taxable income for child support. When you add it up, it comes out to $2 million a year.
But in a California child support case, a mom is getting a second shot after the Court of Appeal reversed a trial court order that had the effect of “limiting” child support to the amounts stated in the previous paragraph.
To understand this case, one has to understand that for over 25 years, California judges have been required to use a child support guideline formula that looks at each parent’s income or ability to earn; the number of children; and the amount of time each parent spends with the children.
In this case, entitled Marriage of Macilwaine, the father (John) earned a lot of money. And he also received stock options that could be sold in most situations. The first big issue was whether stock options that were vested but not exercised could be considered part of John’s income. If they were, child support, under the guidelines, would could have exceeded $100,000.00 per month.
But the trial judge decided that it only had to treat options as income “where necessary to assure the child’s needs are met”. Using this approach, the judge ruled that John’s income was approximately $2.6 million in 2014 and therefore monthly guideline support was $28,531.00. A lot of money but a far cry from $100,00.00 per month.
The other thing the judge did was depart from the guideline formula. Although, as stated above, judges are supposed to use the guideline formula, there are rare circumstances where using a different figure is permissible provided that the judge announces what child support would be if the guideline formula had been used. In addition, the judge must state the reason the amount of support ordered differs from the guideline formula; and the reasons the amount of support ordered is consistent with the best interests of the children.
One of the reasons for not following the guidelines is that “the parent being ordered to pay child support has an extraordinarily high income and the amount determined under the formula would exceed the needs of the children”. The first thing a judge must do, the Macilwaine case tells us when considering whether to deviate under this reason, is figure out what the needs of the children are. According to the justices, “[c]hildren are entitled to the standard of living attainable by the parent’s income”. (Emphasis in original.)
Using this standard, the appeals court reasoned that since the court did not include everything that should have been included when determining John’s income, it therefore could not have properly determined what the children’s needs were. Rather, the opinion states, the judge focused “on the lifestyle John currently provides to his children and his historical spending on them”. (Emphasis in original.)
The Court of Appeal also found error in the trial judge’s reliance on the historical spending of the mother (“Patricia) to determine the needs of the children. This is because, the Court said, “the children’s current standard of living does not determine their needs under section 4057, subdivision. (b)(3)”. If there was any consolation to John, however, the appeals court said that “on remand (i.e., rehearing), John need only show, and court need only explain, why guideline support exceeds the children’s needs — not that guideline support would be detrimental to their interests”.
The trial judge in this case was the Hon. Edward G. Weil. Although the case arose out of the Contra Costa County Superior Court, the case was certified for publication. That means it is binding precedent on all trial courts throughout the State.
The 3-0 Court of Appeal decision was written by Justice J. Anthony Kline.
Because this case shows how complicated it can be in figuring out income and thus the proper amount of support under the Guidelines, and then whether to deviate from the Guidelines, should you find yourself in a child support situation — regardless of which side you are on– seek someone like Andy Cook, a Certified Family Law Specialist (State Bar of California, Board of Legal Specialization) at 619-515-9900.