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.
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.
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.
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
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.