In California, child support is usually determined by a mathematical formula called “the guideline.” The guideline formula takes into account just two things: the net income of the parents and the time share of the children. Theoretically, one could do the calculation by hand, though practically, no one does. Instead, attorneys and judges rely on computer programs (for example, Dissomaster), to determine the appropriate support amount.
Such programs can be handy, but the old maxim applies: “Garbage in, garbage out.” The program only processes information entered by human beings. If the information is put in wrong, or inexpertly, the results aren’t in line with what state law and case precedent demands.
A big source of error in guideline support calculations comes from the mis-entry of “hardships.”
A hardship is a discretionary reduction in the amount of child support owed when the obligor has children from another relationship for whom he/she pays expenses. In San Diego, it is customary for an attorney to say, in settlement negotiations or even in open Court, “My client has got three kids from another relationship, so I want to claim ‘three hardships.'” And then, where Dissomaster asks for an input of hardship number, they type “3,” and out comes a modified support number. Judges will often do the same thing with their calculations.
I can’t tell you how ludicrous this is, not to mention counter to the intent of the legislature.
Here is how hardships should work:
The Court may at the request of a party, allow sufficient deduction from net income to enable a supporting party to meet the minimum basic living expenses of children a party has the obligation to support [CFC 4071(a)(2)] in the event of “extreme financial hardship.” [Marriage of Paulin, (1996) 46 Cal.App.4th 1378, 1382, 54 Cal.Rptr.2nd 314, 317.]
The number of hardships only determines the maximum allowable income deduction when calculating support. A hardship deduction must be based on actual evidenced expenses, not on expenses somehow imputed by the hardship number.
Hardships are, by definition temporary situations [CFC §4072(b)] that must cause extreme financial hardship. There must be adequate documentation and justification for the hardship so that the Court can adequately “state the reasons supporting the deduction in writing or on the record,” and, “document the amount of the deduction and the underlying facts and circumstances.” [CFC §§4072(a)(1) and (2).] “It is the obligation of the trial court to identify in a support order the evidence on which it bases its decision to allow a hardship deduction and its reasons for allowing it, as well as the duration of the deduction where feasible.” Failure to substantiate hardship deductions is a reversible abuse of discretion. [Marriage of Carlsen, (1996) 50 Cal.App.4th 212, 217, 57 Cal.Rptr.2nd 630, 632.] This means that, if a Court blithely plugs in a hardship number without supporting evidence, the decision can be reversed on appeal.
Again: The computer is not an oracle. It does not divinely come up with the magic support number. It is only a tool. If it is not used correctly, the results will not stand up on appeal.
What does this mean for you?
If you are in Court over child support, and the other side tries to get you or the Court to plug in a number of hardships into a guideline support calculator without any documentation of expenses or evidence of extreme financial hardship, you can attack this position. Remember–hardships are discretionary. The Court (and you) are under no obligation to award them.
On the other hand, if you are trying to reduce your child support obligation because you have expenses that you pay for children from another relationship, don’t take it for granted that you will automatically get a discount to guideline. You have to document your expenses, and you have to explain why they create an extreme financial hardship for you.
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