Child support is often a major component of divorce agreements. What you may not know is how drastically legal minimums vary from state to state. Why is the child support obligation so low in Virginia given the number of wealthy families who reside in the state and the high cost of living? Post divorce, a single parent in Virginia can find himself or herself in great financial hardship.
Meet Mike, a lobbyist from Arlington, Virginia who earns $300,000 per year, and his soon to be ex-wife Linda, a teacher-turned-stay-at-home mom who presently has no income. They have three children together, ages 1, 2, and 4. Last spring, Mike decided he wanted a divorce and moved out of state, and now Linda has sole custody. Once the children are a little older, Linda intends to look for a teaching job to help support her family, but in the meantime, she has her hands full. The child support payments must be sufficient to meet the needs of the children.
As the infographic above shows, the amount of the child support obligation is entirely dependent on the state in which a family lives. Each state has its own statutory guidelines that judges, lawyers, and mediators use to help determine the amount of monthly child support paid. Important factors that are used in the child support calculation in Virginia include, but are not limited to, the gross income of the parents, health insurance costs of the children, spousal support paid, number of days of custody annually for each parent, and child care costs. The Virginia guideline is presumptive yet rebuttable if there is evidence under the factors in the statute that would lead a judge to deviate from the guidelines.
Mike, as the non-custodial parent, would have paid a different amount of child support if he and his family had lived in the state of California. In that case, Mike would have paid about $5009 per month until the children were 18 and finished with high school. (Thank you to Bill Eddy in San Diego at www.highconflictinstitute.com for calculating the child support amount that would be paid in the state of California.) Bill notes that often in California, a judge will impute minimum wage income to an unemployed spouse, which would reduce the child support down to $4625 per month.
If Mike and his family lived in New York State, Mike would have paid about $3455 per month to help support his three children until they are 21. (Thanks to Randy Margulis in Buffalo at www.randymargulis.com for computing the calculation.) Randy notes that the NY courts have the discretion to exceed the cap where the presumptive amount of support is “unjust or inappropriate” and would likely impose an additional obligation considering Mike’s level of income. It is likely that there would be a spousal support obligation. Moreover, a N.Y. court may direct a parent to contribute to a child’s college education.
But in Virginia, Mike is obligated to pay just $3114 per month to meet the needs of all three children until they are 18 and finished with high school. Virginia state law does not mandate that Mike (or Linda) pay college tuition and associated expenses. (It is likely that spousal support would be paid as well which would reduce the child support but would increase the resources available for the children. Also note that the statute requires a proportionate sharing of unreimbursed health expenses for a child.)
The child support obligation in Virginia is strikingly low, especially when compared to an analysis by Emily Thomas of the Huffington Post that the average cost of raising just one child in the United States is about $14,000 per year. (See "This Is How Much It Costs To Raise A Child In The U.S." Huffington Post, updated September 2, 2014.) Look at the analysis and then note that where a family resides geographically greatly impacts monthly expenses and pushes that annual number much higher. The cost of living varies dramatically by location.
Consider the Virginia child support guideline along with the real financial costs associated with living in northern Virginia. In 2016, the Economic Policy Institute said that the Washington, D.C. metro area was the most expensive city in the country to raise a child –- more expensive than New York City. And in 2015, the Institute said that Arlington, Virginia – located just 4 miles from DC -- was the seventh most expensive place in the country to raise a child. Mortgages, rent, and child care expenses are sky high in our region.
It is important to note that parents have the flexibility to negotiate a child support amount that makes sense for their particular family. The guidelines may be used as one frame of reference in mediation, yet budgets for both parents and the children may have a strong bearing on what works for that family. Parents may agree to a higher payment of child support when they both realize that more money is needed. Or, Linda may be able to negotiate that Mike pay more child support than is required by the statute in exchange for going back to work sooner than she had anticipated. But if Mike were to refuse to negotiate and to take a hard line approach that he was only going to pay the guideline amount or legal minimum, his family could face real financial hardship.
The Virginia guideline for determination of child support was last updated in July of 2014. Prior to that time, the guideline had not been updated since 1995. We believe the time has come for a more comprehensive review and reform. Others may have a different opinion. Please let us know your particular stories and your thoughts regarding this important issue.
Many thanks to Kate, Bill, Randy, Angus, Karen, and Rick for your contributions to this article.
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.