Anyone in Connecticut paying or receiving Child Support or Alimony should be aware that the state Supreme Court recently clarified the law regarding the effect of an increase in income for the person paying Child Support or Alimony.
In the simplest terms, the action means two things:
- Those paying Alimony will not see the amount of their payments increase even if their income increases significantly—and, therefore, those receiving Alimony will not benefit from higher payments even if a former spouse receives a big salary increase.
- Those who pay Child Support could see the level of payments increase if their income increases—and, therefore, those who receive Child Support for dependent children now have a means to seek and obtain higher payments when circumstances change.
It’s important to note that any potential changes to the level of Child Support payments would only come through the filing of Motions to Modify Alimony and/or Child Support.
While the ruling has connections with cases involving affluent professionals, legal commentators have said in analyzing the decision that the child support aspect, especially, affects families at all income levels.
So why are their different “rules” for Alimony and Child Support?
Essentially the answer is that if the level of Alimony remains sufficient to support the person receiving it, there is no need for an increase—and that a spouse receiving Alimony isn’t properly entitled to share in “an improved standard of living that is solely the result of the supporting spouse’s efforts,” as the court declared.
That reasoning likely feels right to most people—just as a previous interpretation of the law that acted as a roadblock to Child Support increases likely felt wrong to most observers: If Mom or Dad suddenly makes a lot more money, why shouldn’t the standard of living of his or her children also improve?
Understanding the full context behind the recent state Supreme Court clarification means taking a look back at the evolution of the law, and getting into details.
Family court Motions to Modify Child Support or Alimony require a court to find a substantial change in circumstances from the entry of the last order. In the past, a substantial increase in income for the person paying Child Support or Alimony qualified as a substantial change in circumstances.
But that changed in 2014 as part of the high-profile Dan v. Dan case.
With respect to Motions to Modify Alimony, a new rule was announced by the Connecticut Supreme Court in Dan v. Dan, 315 Conn. 1 (2014) in which the Supreme Court stated that:
“…when the amount of the original alimony award was and continues to be sufficient to fulfill the purpose of the award, whether that purpose was to maintain permanently the standard of living of the supported spouse at the level that he or she enjoyed during the marriage or to provide temporary support in order to allow the supported spouse to become self-sufficient, an increase in the income of the supporting [paying] spouse, standing alone, is not a sufficient justification to modify an alimony award. In short, when the sole change in circumstances is an increase in the income of the supporting spouse, and when the initial award was and continues to be sufficient to fulfill the intended purpose of that award, we can conceive of no reason why the supported [receiving] spouse, whose marriage to the supporting spouse has ended and who no longer contributes anything to the supporting spouse’s income earning efforts, should be entitled to share in an improved standard of living that is solely the result of the supporting spouse’s efforts.” Dan v. Dan, supra, 315 Conn. 10, 15.”
Accordingly, with regard to a modification of Alimony:
- When the amount of the original alimony award was and continues to be sufficient to fulfill the intended purpose of the award; then
- An increase in the income of the supporting/paying spouse, standing alone, is not sufficient justification to modify the alimony award.
That decision in Dan v. Dan effectively served to prevent increases in Child Support when the person paying the support experienced an increase in income—a situation that angered legal aid and children’s rights advocates, who intervened in the issue by asking to file amicus curiae briefs when another case, McKeon v. Lennon, went to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
In contrast to Motions to Modify Alimony, the Connecticut Supreme Court decided in McKeon v. Lennon, 321 Conn. 323 (2016) that an increase in income for the person paying Child Support should always be considered in a Motion to Modify Child Support because Child Support orders are calculated under the Connecticut Child Support Guidelines, which are based on the “Income Shares Model.”
The Income Shares Model considers the income of both parents and presumes that the child should receive the same proportion of parental income as he or she would have received if the parents lived together.
Accordingly, the determination of a parent’s child support obligation must account for all of the income that would have been available to support the child(ren) had the family remained together. The calculation of child support is based on the Income Shares Model and the parties combined net income rather than on the actual cost associated with raising a child. The Connecticut Child Support Guidelines are income driven rather than expense driven.
“At each income level, the guidelines allocate a certain percentage of parental income to child support,” reads the decision in McKeon v. Lennon, supra. “The percentage allocations contained in the guidelines aim to reflect the average proportions of income spent on children in households of various income and family sizes, and contain a built in self-support reserve for the obligor/payor. The result is that the guidelines incorporate an allocation of resources between parents and children that the legislature has decided is the appropriate allocation. Consequently, our interpretation of the guidelines must seek to preserve this allocation. In order to achieve this goal the determination of a parent’s child support obligation must account for all of the income that would have been available to support the children had the family remained together. The party seeking the modification bears the burden of demonstrating that such a change has occurred.”
The court also decided that exercised stock options and restricted stock that has vested since the original child support order should be considered components of the payor’s gross income for purposes of calculating child support in a Motion to Modify Child Support because they constitute deferred or incentive-based compensation and are not specifically excluded from the calculation of gross income under the child support guidelines.
“This means that, unlike when considering a request for the modification of an alimony order, the trial court may consider a substantial increase in the supporting spouse’s income, standing alone, as sufficient justification for granting a Motion to Modify a child support order to ensure that the child receives the same proportion of parental income that he or she would have received if the parents had remained together,” says McKeon v. Lennon, supra.
If you are faced with a situation of either defending a Motion for Modification of Child Support or Alimony, or when considering whether to file such a Motion with the court, you should speak to an experienced attorney to discuss the legal issues that will impact those proceedings and your decision making process.
Attorney James D. Hirschfield is based in the Litchfield office of Cramer & Anderson—the regional firm with other offices in New Milford, Danbury, Washington and Kent—and may be reached at 860-567-8718. His email is email@example.com.