Metro-East News

Want to lower your child support payments? Check out these changes in the law.

The average child support payment for a noncustodial parent is $430 a month, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

That comes to $5,160 a year, or more than $92,880 over 18 years, when a child becomes an adult.

But a change in the calculation of child support in Illinois that was signed into law earlier this month could affect the amount noncustodial parents pay.

The new child support formula takes into account the custodial parent’s income, how much time the kids spend with each parent and who and how much is paid for health insurance for the child.

Before, Illinois based the noncustodial parent’s child support obligation on a straight percentage of net income — 20 percent for one child, 28 percent for two kids, 32 percent for three kids, and 40 percent for four or more.

Now, the state will base payments on an income-sharing calculation, rather than solely on the noncustodial parent’s income.

Child support payments remain constant, regardless of whether the noncustodial parent’s income goes up, unless either side asks a judge to change them.

Jim Brand, of Greenville, currently pays about $955 a month in child support for his twin 15-year-old daughters, Kayla and Danielle. One of his daughters moved in with him earlier this year. The other visits often. He pays the girls’ premium for medical and dental insurance, as well as a share medical, dental co-pays and extracurricular activity or child-care fees. After using the new child support formula that can be found on the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services’ website, Brand figures he could be paying hundreds of dollars a month less.

“Now that they’re 15 and looking at cars and colleges, it would be nice to have some of that money put away to help costs. If I were to pay similar to the calculator estimates, it would definitely free up money for future planning,” Brand said.

Altering his child support payments may require a court appearance, something Brand is considering.

“Even though I make a pretty decent salary, I have always had to keep a strict budget. Always telling my girls ‘no’ when I could’ve said ‘yes’ a bit more. If we can vacation, they have been ‘staycations’ or a modest trip to Kentucky to stay in a rustic cabin. It would be nice to have to pay much smaller, reasonable amounts,” Brand said.

Julie Keehner Katz never used any other way to figure child support than a flat percentage of the noncustodial parent’s net income since she became a lawyer in 1984, the year the old guidelines were enacted.

Katz practiced family law until she was appointed as a St. Clair County associate judge and later came to head the court’s family division. Now, she is ordering child support payments based on the new formula, not a flat rate.

“It’s felt to be fairer because it’s based on both the parents’ income, not just the noncustodial parent’s income,” Katz said.

For example, if a custodial parent earns a monthly income of $2,000 and the noncustodial parent earns $3,000 with one child, and visitation is a standard every other weekend and one night through the week (104 nights a year), and the noncustodial parent pays $250 per month in health insurance premiums with no payment of daycare or activity fees, the child support would be approximately $494 a month, plus $72 a month for health insurance.

Under the old system, child support would be based solely on the $3,000 noncustodial parent’s income and would be $600 a month, plus the judge could order an additional amount for health insurance premiums.

Now, other factors, such as visitation time and the other parent’s income, would be considered. For some, there could be little change in the amount of support paid, but for others, like Brand, it could mean a big change.

The changes shouldn’t lead to a run on the courthouse, however, because a change itself doesn’t mean a new child support order, Katz said.

“There has to be a substantial change in circumstances, such as changes in parenting time, significant changes in income that are going to last for a while. This change in the law isn’t considered a substantial change in circumstance,” Fairmont City family law attorney Marleen Suarez said.

If a noncustodial parent has the child 147 or more nights, it also changes the formula. That would mean that the noncustodial parent has the child 40 percent of the time and reduces the child support obligation.

“You are going to have a lot of parents asking for more parenting time because it would affect the financial aspect of it. I hope that it’s because they want more time with the child and not because they want to pay less child support,” Suarez said.

And many noncustodial parents may want their visitation days to total 147 to reduce the amount of child support they have to pay. If this becomes a sticking point, it may keep cases from being settled in mediation and forcing an appearance in the family courtroom, Katz said.

Ultimately, a judge decides but the guidelines are there to inform those decisions, Katz said.

The changes in the child support law follow last year’s alterations of the divorce law, taking fault out of divorce cases and halting use of the word custody and replacing it with “parenting time.”

Margaret Bennett, an Oak Brook attorney who was on the committee to update Illinois’ child support law, said the federal government likely soon would have required the state to adopt the income-sharing model.

“The committees considered all relevant factors affecting both parents. In addition, issues were discussed in public hearings and meetings relative to factors affecting parents. Members of the public were encouraged to testify and asked questions relative to the adoption of the income-shares methodology to compute child support,” Bennett said.

Workshops are being held around the state to help lawyers who handle family cases educate themselves and prepare clients for the new computations, Suarez and Katz said. Madison and St. Clair Counties have each held workshops already.

Bennett said the feedback on the changes has been positive. Committee members from different parts of the state were asked about the transition, and they reported no complaints and a “seamless transition,” Bennett said.

“I think the main reason was to make child support obligation more equitable. Many states figure it this way,” Suarez said. “The goal is that the child is being treated the same in both households, not have a money advantage in either household.”

Beth Hundsdorfer: 618-239-2570, @bhundsdorfer