In most family law cases where there is more than one child, the children share the same parenting time schedule and move back and forth between their parents’ households together. However, occasionally a situation arises where a shared parenting time arrangement is not best for the children. For example, a child may be estranged from a parent. Separate parenting time schedules may also be necessary if one child has special needs, and it is sometimes appropriate if there is a significant difference between the ages and developmental stages of the children.
One of the thorniest issues for a family law practitioner on how to address a split parenting time arrangement is how to calculate child support under this circumstance. Surprisingly, the child support calculation system used by the courts (and available on the Arizona Supreme Court website) has no mechanism to address a split parenting time arrangement. Attempting to calculate support in a divided parenting situation is particularly complex where parenting time is being shared by the parents for the children, but in different amounts. We often have resorted to pretending that one child does not exist or is not a child of both parents to attempt to ballpark an amount of support that is consistent with the Guidelines. However, this approach often results in an inflation of the child support obligation, because child support does not increase by a set amount per child. Instead, there are incremental increases for additional children because some of the expenses related to providing for a child (such as paying for housing) do not increase with additional children. The different approaches tried in litigation never satisfactorily addressed this issue.
Happily, a recent decision from Division One of the Arizona Court of Appeals now gives instruction on how to address a split parenting time situation. In Mitton v. Mitton, the parties had three children. The two youngest children shared equal parenting time with both parents, while the oldest child lived exclusively with the mother. The trial court calculated child support by preparing a worksheet for support for the oldest child, and then a separate worksheet for support for the younger children. The child support amounts were then added together to arrive at the father’s support amount. The father appealed and argued that this approach artificially inflated his support obligation.
The Court of Appeals agreed with the father and gave family law practitioners throughout the state instructions on how to calculate child support when there is a split parenting time schedule. The opinion directs the preparation of one child support worksheet for all the children. The total number of parenting time days exercised by the parent who will be required to pay child support is then calculated by adding together the time spent with each individual child, and then divided by the number of children covered by the support worksheet. This number is the average amount of parenting time exercised by the obligor parent with all of the children, and it is used as the parenting time credit to calculate the support amount for all of the children.
The Mitton decision will help us better serve our clients who are in a shared parenting time situation because we can now give specific guidance about what amount of support can be expected for the children. This in turn will help our clients prepare for their financial future with greater certainty, and it will help reduce the need for litigation in these situations because we can better anticipate the probable outcome of a child support dispute.