Effective for cases heard after Jan. 1, 2019, the N.C. Child Support Guidelines have changed. The Guidelines are revised every four years by the N.C. Conference of Chief District Court Judges. You may know that for about the last 20 years, N.C. law has had Guidelines in place to set and modify child support. The Guidelines are based on studies of how much people at different income levels typically spend to raise children, including both direct expenses (like food and clothes) and indirect costs (like a share of family housing, utility, and vehicle expenses). When you enter parents’ gross incomes, health insurance, day care cost, etc. into a worksheet, the result is the Guideline child support payment. This amount will be the amount of child support ordered, unless a party files a motion to deviate and puts on evidence showing why the court should order a higher or lower amount. My experience is that judges order the Guideline amount at least 95 percent of the time.

What’s new in this revision? The 2019 Guidelines emphasize the importance of setting child support that accurately reflects a parent’s ability to pay.

For someone who is unemployed (but not staying at home with a child of the parties under age 3), the Guidelines have always required the court to impute income, saying what the person could reasonably have earned. The 2019 Guidelines change the rule for persons without recent work history from imputing minimum wage at 40 hours per week to 35 hours per week.

Incarceration is no longer considered voluntary unemployment for purposes of establishing or modifying child support. This means we can no longer impute income to a parent who is incarcerated. That parent’s income ordinarily will be entered as zero, but there is a $50/month minimum child support obligation that can still be ordered.

The two changes just discussed will have the overall impact of reducing child support payments. Here’s one that potentially increases child support payments. When considering the income to be imputed to a parent who is underemployed or unemployed in a deliberate effort to decrease child support, the types of evidence a judge can consider are broader than before. In the past, the amount of income imputed focused literally on income potential (usually career or job-related) considerations, and not on assets. The 2019 changes specifically require a court to consider that parent’s “assets” and “residence,” and “other relevant background factors relating to actual earning potential.” If a parent can be underemployed because he has enough assets to cushion him against financial distress, those assets may be considered in imputing income.

One helpful clarification is handling veterans’ and Social Security benefits for the child(ren). Those benefits are included in the income of the parent whose earnings resulted in those benefits, but then get deducted from that parent’s child support payment where the benefit check goes to the other parent. If, for example, the child’s benefit comes from Dad’s earnings record or disability, but the benefit check goes to Mom because Mom has primary custody, that benefit will be deducted from Dad’s child support payment. If Dad gets the child’s check, then the benefit amount is not deducted from his child support payment.

To read the 2019 Guidelines, go online to https://www.nccourts.gov/assets/documents/forms/a162.pdf?I2wd9scwxX6xD8PqjhaPc7mlY3k.ji79. More information on child support laws can be obtained from the Orange County Child Support Enforcement Office at (919) 245-2175, or by consulting an attorney.

Kim K. Steffan is an attorney at Steffan & Associates, P.C. She can be reached at (919) 732-7300 or kim.steffan@steffanlaw.com.