A Change in Circumstances May Warrant Going Back to Court
Key Points
  • The courts understand that there are some risky assumptions made when ordering child support and establishing custody arrangements. These assumptions are primarily the ability for a child support payor to earn a certain amount of income and the amount of time a non-custodial parent spends with a child. These two things often change after a divorce is final, which is why modifying an existing child support or custody order is rather common and best for the child.

In family law, former spouses frequently go before courts to seek a change in a previous ruling because of a change in circumstances. These changes are called modifications. These modifications, which leave the general purpose of the order intact but amend the details, frequently concern custody and visitation, spousal and/or child support.

After divorce, many people face changes in their lives or in those of their children that require a post-judgment application to the court because of the unforeseen and unforeseeable fall of events. Commonly, for example, people lose jobs or become disabled, and then struggle under the weight of alimony or child support obligations. Sometimes finishing an education or getting job training to return to the work force takes longer than expected. Sometimes the needs of growing children require more than was expected and demand the continuing support of a former spouse. For a variety of reasons, former spouses often return to court in good faith to ask for changes.

Child support is frequently modified. When either the custodial or the noncustodial parent seeks modification of a child support, the court considers the best interests of the child. This analysis requires the court to examine the child’s needs, the ability of both parents to contribute, and other factors.

A child’s needs sometimes change due to his/her age, academic situation, extracurricular pursuits, or a medical condition. A parent’s ability to contribute to the needs of a child may have changed due either to the loss of a job or because of professional success, illness/disability, or even incarceration. Importantly, a child is entitled to share in his/her parent’s post-judgment good fortune. For these reasons, child support may be modified up or down, particularly when one spouse’s income has increased or decreased dramatically.

Courts determine child support based on a variety of factors. Each state in the United States is required by federal law to establish guidelines that are used to calculate child support due from parents based largely on their income and expenses. Because states have a fair amount of discretion in setting these guidelines, child support payments vary widely between jurisdictions, even under the same circumstances. Normally, however, the courts consider the standard of living of the child prior to divorce, the specific needs of the child, the resources of the custodial parent, and the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay. Because judges enjoy wide discretion in setting these payments, a non-custodial father must present as much information to the court up-front to make the payments as fair as possible.

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