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How do courts determine child and spousal support obligations?

Couples who have decided to end their marriage face various important decisions in the upcoming months, depending on their life circumstances. However, for many people, child support and/or spousal support negotiations demand a significant portion of time during the divorce process. Laws regarding how courts determine each person’s level of obligation vary from state to state, but divorcing Massachusetts individuals can benefit from knowing the following general guidelines.

Generally, when determining a person’s support obligation, courts take into account any type of earned income, as well as any recurring passive income, such as dividends received from investments. Examples of earned income include salary, employment perks, performance bonuses and other types. In addition, courts will access the most recently filed tax return. However, if warranted, they may also look further to determine if other financial avenues exist beyond the tax return. Courts also have the right to impute income to one person for income calculation purposes if, for example, they determine that the person’s current income is not reflective of their earning potential.

Some divorcing individuals may attempt to manipulate their income to make it appear lower than it actually is, but courts will take into account the past several years’ income rather than only current income. People can, however, keep in mind a few strategies that will help them reach a beneficial support agreement. For one, a person can be wise about the timing of his or her divorce. For example, if the next year will reflect a higher or lower income, the divorce could be expedited or delayed appropriately. As well, a divorcing individual can request a provision in the divorce agreement specifying that the support obligation will be modified if, in the future, income decreases by a specified amount.

Massachusetts divorcing individuals should be prepared to have all of their income sources examined as the court works toward determining child and/or spousal support obligations. Importantly, courts will carefully consider the family’s lifestyle during the marriage and attempt to maintain that if possible. Since all aspects of the divorce process can be daunting and stressful, an experienced family law attorney is a valuable resource for divorcing individuals when making potentially life-altering decisions.


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