Why create a Tennessee Child Support Blog? I practice family law, sure. But, before I became a lawyer, I was a CPA. I find all technical financial aspects of family law interesting. For example, there are several differences between gross income as it appears on tax returns and gross income for child support. Probably not a lot of family lawyers get excited about that sort of stuff, but I do. Whether a parent earns over a half million dollars a year as a high-level corporate executive or is a fireman and cuts lawns as a sideline, the definition of gross income impacts every child support case.
In between cases, I spend time reading, writing, and speaking on technical financial divorce topics. Often, the articles and presentations focus on the use of forensic accountants or how to review tax returns and financial statements. One of the benefits of all this hard work is that I’ve learned a lot about determining income for child support calculations and been able to share knowledge with others. As an example, when I wrote The Forensic Accounting Deskbook: A Practical Guide to Financial Investigation and Analysis for Family Lawyers, published by the American Bar Association, I devoted an entire chapter of my book to the single issue of income determination.
I anticipate using this blog as a research tool within our practice, trying to make sense of technical questions and drilling down into core issues. Maybe other lawyers will read it too. Who knows? If someone reads this blog and learns something that helps, that is a good thing. Because it is written as a research tool and much of child support research involves the text of the Guidelines, I will start out by including sections of the Guidelines sorted by category. As we add postings, I anticipate cross-referencing provisions.
What does Tennessee child support law need? I say, above all else, predictability. Fairness may be another lofty goal, sure. I have never represented a parent who really cared about the difference in $50 per month in child support here or there. Yes, parents want fairness, but they really want to be assured that the support is used for the benefit of the children. But that’s impossible to legislate. The best many parents can hope for is to count on what is coming in/going out from month to month.
The promulgation of the income shares method was a real shock to the Tennessee legal system. In went to I went to the Department of Children’s Services’ hearings in Memphis where a panel received comments from the public. It was crazy. People were screaming. On one side of the issue, some parents thought the guidelines (read the “system”) took too much and left too little upon which a parent could live. On the other side, the ineffectiveness of collection made life unbearable when no support was received. In fact, only one or two people even spoke about whether the income shares model was a good idea. The new Guidelines was 70 pages long, no copies were made available, and no one who attended the hearings even bothered to read it. It was very frustrating.
Tennessee’s income shares model was not drafted by lawyers. (Some may see that as a good thing.) In fact, the Legislature never even voted on it. The Guidelines are Rules, promulgated by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services. Initially, the Department did not consult any Tennessee family lawyers or judges. After its initial draft was released to the public, a group from the Tennessee Bar Association Family Law Section shared ideas and offered suggested changes. A few changes were made. But, at the end of the day, some parents were going to pay or receive a lot less money than parents with the exact same incomes with the same number of children. The new Guidelines made a huge difference from the previous set of Rules. Calculating child support became much more complicated and expensive for all Tennessee parents. The Department of Children Services justified this complexity in the name of fairness.
Parts of the additions to the new child support guidelines were nothing more than setting out the existing case law. For those additions, no real change meant no real problems. For other additions, though, a great deal of difficulty was created. For example, the rules related to modifying child support are difficult to understand. Family lawyers could only guess how the new complicated rules might be applied. Across Tennessee, parents filed child support modification actions but later were told they didn’t meet the criteria for a reduction.
Here we are years later. Have we learned much? One thing is definitely true – having representation by an experienced family lawyer is more important than ever. Child support matters require a fair amount of elbow grease. Do you have all of both parent’s income records for the last two years? Current pay stubs? Does the parenting plan accurately reflect the current parenting time? If not, does it need to be modified? What about the children’s health insurance premiums? Support paid for other children? Child care? Extra-curricular activities? Once the information and documents are provided, it’s time for the family law team to get to work.
When looking at child support issues at our firm, we run several scenarios. Then, looking at the results, we can see how certain factors impact the final result. Sharing this information with our clients, we try to reach a proposed settlement that makes sense. Once we reach an agreement with which the client is comfortable, we send the proposal to opposing counsel. If there is an agreement, the matter settles. If it doesn’t, we head to court.
What makes a big difference? Understanding the rules, experience working with the guidelines, and lots of documents to review. In other words, everything. The devil is in the details. There are no mysteries. There are no secrets. There is only hard work. Let’s get started.
Memphis divorce attorney, Miles Mason, Sr., JD, CPA, practices family law exclusively and is founder of the Miles Mason Family Law Group, PLC. Miles is the author of The Forensic Accounting Deskbook: A Practical Guide to Financial Investigation and Analysis for Family Lawyers, published by the American Bar Association. Like on Facebook – Connect on LinkedIn – Follow on Twitter.