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Can you change your Career when you have a current support order?

Posted By Janalee Mays-Robinson || 13-Apr-2015

In California, child support orders follow a statutory “guideline” amount. A guideline child support amount utilizes a computer system (the “dissomaster”) that considers various factors to calculate the amount one parent owes in child support. There are important factors that affect a child support amount which includes the amount of custodial time spent with the children and the income of each party. Although the general rule for child support orders is to follow guideline amounts, ultimately a court places the best interest of the children as the highest priority when making a child support order.

If a child support order is already in place, a payor parent may face a difficult decision if the parent desires a career change or perhaps would like to spend more time at home with his or her children. The decision to change jobs might affect a parent’s income and have drastic consequences in child support payments even if the parent has good intentions in mind.

In Padilla, a case heard by the Court, a father that paid child support based on a monthly income of $6,000 per month decided it was time for a change of employment. The father decided to quit his job and become self-employed. Unfortunately, the father’s business was not nearly as successfully as he hoped it would be and as a result his business operated at a loss. Although the court found the father to have quit his job in good faith and not as a means to avoid child support payments, the court still imputed income on the father based on his previous earnings of $6,000 per month.

The Padilla court noted that child support is a parent’s highest obligation. Child support “must be taken into account whenever a payor parent wishes to pursue a different lifestyle or endeavor.” A parent that voluntarily leaves their place of employment risks the possibility that the court might impute income based on their previous earnings even in the absence of bad faith.

The Padilla decision faced some backlash from critics who argued parent were now placed in a very undesirable position. Was a parent never allowed to quit a stressful or grueling position for a lower paying job without having income imputed based on the higher paying job? What about a parent that left a higher paying job in order to spend more quality time with their children? If a parent was ill or otherwise unable to stay at their current position, would they be penalized by having income imputed based on previous employment? These were some of the questions that arose after the Padilla decision, which was criticized as being too rigid and extreme. Some courts even went so far as to describe “Padilla jail” for parents who felt there was no freedom to change employment out of fear that income might be imputed based on previous higher earnings.

Later, the court in Bardzik criticized Padilla because “there may be times, however, when the “best interests of the children” are promoted when parents leave stressful, time-consuming, albeit high-paying jobs, so as to be able to spend more time with their children. The Bardzik decision reinforced the best interests of the children standard, which consequently takes into consideration all factors of a parent’s decision to pursue other career opportunities which might affect the ability to pay child support rather than strict employment history and current earnings.

Categories: Divorce, Family Law

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