People frequently ask the question, “What does child support cover?” The answer depends, at least in part, on who you ask. Note: Although the principles in this article may be relevant in other states, this article only applies to child support in Oregon. The topics discussed are not “rules” per se, but rather observations based on practicing family law for 10 years and having mediated hundreds of cases.
The General Rule. Generally speaking, if you go to trial a judge will tell you that child support covers a parent’s entire contribution to a child’s expenses in the other parent’s household, except for unreimbursed medical expenses which are their own separate category. (It’s important to note that contributions for childcare and health insurance premiums are factored into the child support calculation.) In other words, parents are generally not required to split various costs related to their children. With that in mind, one common reason for choosing mediation is so that people can reach their own agreements without having someone tell them what they are going to do.
The Parenting Time Credit. The Oregon Child Support Guidelines factor in something called a ‘parenting time credit.’ The parenting time credit is a reduction in child support based on the total amount of time a parent spends with the children (usually based on overnights). The idea is that if someone has more time with the children, they are spending more money on the children during their time than if they did not have as much time (and the other parent is spending less). It’s pretty easy to imagine that a parent who has a ‘week on/week off’ parenting plan will spend a lot more money on things related to the children then a parent who only sees the children every other weekend. The parenting time credit accounts for this.
The concept of the parenting credit makes sense, but it can also make the “normal” child support rules a bit confusing in certain situations. If one parent has very limited parenting time, then it makes sense that that parent pays child support and the other parent pays for most expenses. But who is supposed to pay for the various expenses if parents have equal parenting time, particularly if they have similar incomes? This is one example of why people often split certain expenses.
What Percentage To Use? When it comes to “splitting” expenses, you need to identify what percentage each parent will pay. If parents have similar incomes – particularly after transfer of child support and/or spousal support – then parents will often (although not always) agree to split these expenses 50/50. One of the benefits of splitting expenses 50/50 is that the accounting and reimbursing for expenses is more straightforward.
Alternatively, people sometimes split expenses proportionate to their incomes. This means, for example, that if one parent has 70% of the income and other parent has 30% of the income, then they would split expenses 70/30. Parents will often split things proportionate to incomes in situations where they have very disparate incomes.
There is not a ‘right’ answer to how expenses will be split – or if they will be split. Further, people will sometimes split one category 50/50 while splitting other categories proportionate to their incomes. It all depends on what makes the most sense to both of you.
No Child Support. In situations where child support is low anyway, e.g. less than $100, parents will sometimes agree that they will reduce child support to $0 and instead split some or all of the categories of expenses described below. It’s important to know that child support is inherently modifiable, which means that even if there is no child support now, there could be child support in the future. (Here is an article about modification.) In any event, child support will only be reduced to $0 if both parents agree to it. If there is no agreement, then the Oregon Child Support Guideline calculation will apply.
Here are categories of expenditures that people will sometimes include in addition to (or in lieu of) child support:
Irregular Expenditures. The Oregon Child Support Guidelines don’t necessarily factor in larger irregular or “one off” expenditures. For example, if a child has a junior trip to Washington D.C. how should that be paid for? What if a child has to have an iPad for school? What about a $300 bike? People often include a provision that says that they will split the cost of these irregular expenditures as long as both parents agree. This provision isn’t a “risk” to either parent because it only requires parents to pay for something if they both agree.
Extracurricular Activities. Does your child have a specific activity that he or she has always participated in? In that case, parents will sometimes agree that they will split anything related to that particular activity, regardless of cost. For example, if your child has always played club soccer, you might agree that you will split the cost of anything soccer-related without the need to discuss it first (although as a practical matter, you should run these sorts of things by the other parent). With this type of provision, it still makes sense to say that, notwithstanding the agreement to split everything soccer-related, you will discuss anything over a certain amount before incurring the cost ($e.g., $200). Additionally, parents will sometimes agree to split all extra-curricular fees even if their child does not have a “preferred” activity.
Sometimes parents paying child support do not want to include this provision because the Oregon Child Support Guidelines assume that these expenses are covered by child support. This is a perfectly reasonably position for the parent to take. If parents disagree about splitting extracurricular activities, the presumption is that the provision would not be included.
School Related Expenses. Back-to-school shopping can be a very significant expense. New clothes and school supplies can easily cost a few hundred dollars or more. Parents will sometimes agree to split back-to-school shopping. They may also agree to split other school related expenses such as misc. school fees, school pictures, field trip fees, etc. As with extracurricular costs, if parents disagree about splitting these costs, the presumption is that the provision would not be included.
Private School Tuition. Private school tuition is typically something a court will not order parents to split unless they agree. With that said, if it is important to both parents that a child continues to attend a particular school, parents will sometimes agree to split the cost of private school tuition.
Childcare. Work or school-related childcare is a factor in the child support calculation. The child support calculator splits the expense proportionate to each parent’s income. What ends up happening is that if one parent pays all of the childcare expenses, then child support will go up if that person is receiving child support or child support will go down if that parent is paying child support.
One of the challenges of factoring childcare costs into the child support calculation is that childcare costs fluctuate regularly. As children get older costs typically change. Also, when there are breaks from school costs typically change. If you factor childcare into the child support calculation and then there is a significant change in childcare cost, then you will probably have to run a new childcare calculation.
One way that people avoid having to constantly rerun child support calculations is by excluding childcare from the child support calculation. Instead, people will split childcare proportionate to their incomes (usually) when it is incurred. That way if childcare costs fluctuate, your contributions to childcare will fluctuate but child support will stay the same. The reason childcare is split proportionate to incomes instead of 50/50 is because the child support calculator splits the cost proportionate to incomes.
It’s important to understand that parents are generally not required to split the above expenses. However, many parents often agree to split at least some of these expenses. In the absence of an agreement, it is important to know that the presumption is that these expenses will not be split.
The topic of splitting expenses is a good example of why people pick mediation in the first place – so they can create agreements that make sense to them rather than having someone else make their decisions for them.
So what does child support cover? The answer, at least in mediation and Collaborative Law, is that child support covers whatever you both agree it should cover.