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How Child Support is Set in Georgia

There was a time when the judge had practically unfettered discretion in setting the amount of child support, but those days are long gone, thanks to the federal government. Under our federal Constitution, the federal government has no say so when it comes to family law. In the 1990s, the federal government decided that it would be a nifty idea if the laws of the 50 states could be similar so that people who were similarly situated would be treated similarly. It therefore came up with the idea of child support guidelines and told each of the 50 states that they had to enact laws that the federal government would like if the state wanted to continue to receive federal highway money. Of courseGeorgia wanted to get federal highway money, so it enacted its first version of child support guidelines which were very easy to apply but turned out to be very unfair in many cases.

The original Georgia child support guidelines required that the payor parent to pay a percentage of his gross income, before taxes and all other deductions, depending upon the number of children involved in the case presently before the court. For example if a man had only one child, then he would pay between 17% and 23% of his gross income as child support. If the man had two children by two different women, then he would be required to pay between 17% and 23% of his gross income to each mother unless he could get both of the mothers involved in the same lawsuit so that there would be two children before the court for whom child support had to be set. In that event, the man would have up paying between 23% and 28% of his gross income for both children (as opposed to having two different court orders, which together would add up to 34% to46%. of his gross income.) It was not unusual for one man to be subject to multiple court order requiring him to pay a given percentage of his gross income, all of which added up to a number greater than 100% of his income. Obviously it would not have been possible for him to comply with each court order; but given that all of his income was being used to pay child support, it was next to impossible for the him to find the money to pay a lawyer to fix it. The only way to fix it was to file a single lawsuit against each of the custodial parent. Fortunately the Georgia legislature enacted new child-support guidelines in the mid-2000's.

Current Georgia law follows an “income shares will model.” What this means is that the income of both parents will be considered in setting child-support. The Georgia legislature, in its infinite wisdom, has decreed that people who make a certain amount of money per month ought to be spending a certain amount of it on their children. Let’s suppose that mom and dad together earn $100 per month. The legislature thinks they should spend $10 per month on their child or children. Let’s further suppose that dad earns $60 of the $100 and mom makes $40 of it. If mom were to get custody, then dad would pay her $6 of the $10 per month; but if he were to get custody, then mom would pay him $4 of the $10. There are some mandatory adjustments, most notably for the cost of health insurance for the benefit of the child or children and the cost of daycare so that the custodial parent can go to work. There are many discretionary adjustments such as the cost of piano lessons or summer camp or special medical needs. Just like the old law before the federal government got involved, current Georgia law allows a parent to present evidence at trial of the circumstances pertaining to the children and further allows the judge the discretion to consider those circumstances in determining whether the $4 or $6 should be adjusted upward or downward. Georgia law has always allowed a parent to demand a jury trial so that the amount of child support can be determined by a jury instead of a judge.

There is a child-support worksheet that can be filled out manually, but it is difficult to do so. It is much easier to download from the internet a spreadsheet template that only works in Excel. The child-support worksheet makes the determination of child support a fairly automatic process. Despite the existence of discretionary adjustments, there is not a lot of negotiation that parties can do, nor is there as much wiggle room for a judge to exercise his discretion as there was before the enactment of the first set of guidelines,which essentially removed the judge’s discretion from the equation. The current version of Georgia’s child support guidelines take into account all of the children for whom a payor parent is or may be legally obligated to pay child support without regard to whether any given child (actually, that child’s parent) is presently before the court.

This article has not attempted to explain any of the mechanics of how child support is set in any great detail, but has merely been a general overview of the process, with some historical commentary to help understand how we got to where we are. The statute which governs the determination of child support is a lot longer than this article!

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