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Of Boilerplate and Bonuses
No one welcomes a discussion of divorce related issues. So they remain in the shadows of information. And anyone who has suffered through a divorce will tell you just how expensive that information can be. As if ending the marriage was not bad enough, the angst and cost can endure until the infamous support orders end. Most divorcing spouses pay little attention to the boilerplate with all those little numbers required in Separation Agreements, Shared Parenting Plans, and in Decrees. And they may never even read the little print on the back of the withholding notices. But those numbers refer to laws that must be read and understood. That "boilerplate" greatly affects your bonus, and any other employment enhancement.
Last week our First District Court of Appeals confirmed that the boilerplate that few individuals ever understand can have expensive consequences. Julie and Tom were divorced in October 1995. In March 1999 Julie filed a motion to increase child support suspecting a dramatic increase in Tom’s income. Upon finding that Tom’s income had increased substantially, Julie filed a Motion for Contempt because Tom never informed the CSEA (the collecting agency) of his pay increases since the date of the divorce. In 1995 under oath, Tom had listed his 1995 income at $68,343. But Julie discovered that Tom’s 1995 W-2 reported earnings of $120,340. Intervening years showed Tom’s increasing income of $150,634, $147,970, $177,880, and over $202,000. Tom was found in contempt and ordered to pay retroactive child support based on each of his increased earnings year to year, interest on the outstanding arrearage amount, and Julie’s attorney fees.
The "boilerplate" required that CSEA be notified of any change in employment, including self-employment, and of the availability of any other sources of income that can be the subject of any withholding or deduction, and, just in case we missed something, any other information reasonably required by the agency. Not a short order, considering that there is no guidance for what amount one would reasonably be required to report.
The withholding order was incorporated by reference in the required language of their decree, as well as into their final decree of shared parenting.
Over the years, it is possible that withholding orders change in wording and notice requirements. Moreover, the language requirements for decrees have also evolved. Like Julie’s and Tom’s decree, some decrees simply state that specific withholding or deduction requirements to be used to collect support "shall be determined without the need for any amendment to the support order."
Beware of loaded boilerplate: the rules of the game can change and you are required to observe them while they do. Is there any good news for high-income individuals? The child support statute was overhauled this past March and corrected this September. There is a new child support worksheet that has dramatically decreased the presumptive amount of support for combined gross incomes of over $150,000 for both custody and shared parenting. This statute appears to shift to a party seeking more support the burden of proving that more is needed for a "deviation" in the guideline amount.
The statute also confirms prior law that in shared parenting, both parties have a child support obligation. The CSEA can now independently verify a person’s income, although how in practice this will actually happen is still up in the air. Spousal support is now included in the gross income of the recipient and deducted from the payor’s income. This new statute coupled with this case will bring many changes. And you may be responsible for those changes.
At any time during or after the divorce case, a parent may request that a child support order be modified. Modification is granted in order to meet changes in the needs of the children. For example, if a child develops special medical needs, the court may modify child support to require that a parent pay to meet those needs. It is also possible for the court to modify a child support order when there are changes in a parent's ability to pay the original support order. For example, if a parent loses his or her job, the court may decrease the child support payment to reflect the loss in income. In the alternative, the court may increase child support payments if a parent gets a raise or wins the lottery.
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