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What does child support actually support?

Family & Matrimonial Law

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Determination of child support is a key aspect of divorce and Family Court support proceedings involving children. But what exactly is that child support award supposed to cover and what “ancillary” expenses, (also referred to as “add-ons”) are, or are not, included?

The basic definition of ancillary expenses is anything that provides necessary support for a child’s primary activities above and beyond a basic monthly award of child support. This includes a child’s health care insurance premiums, uncovered medical expenses and child care expenses. But by definition, ancillary expenses do not include voluntary activities such as participation in extracurricular activities in or outside of school such as sports, artistic endeavors (i.e. music lessons, dance classes) or hobbies, unless a participation-specific basis to order such additional expenses is determined by the court.

It is important for both parties involved in a divorce or child support proceeding to understand this difference. While a parent might feel participation in the school prom or a soccer club, for example, is primary to their child’s development, it is not considered a primary activity by definition and not something for which a parent already paying child support may be obligated to contribute. Therefore, a Judge or Support Magistrate will not automatically allow these expenses to be included as an ancillary expense (something a parent must contribute to) within the determination of child support payments or add-ons. Thus the obligation to pay for these sports or other extracurricular activities falls on the parent receiving basic child support and  should be included in that parent’s budget. An experienced family and matrimonial attorney can discuss with a parent what is and what is not permitted as an ancillary expense, based on the unique circumstances of each family.

Ancillary expenses are determined differently than a basic award of child support, where a judge or support magistrate considers the combined income of the parents and determines a percentage of it based on how many children are involved. Only one party – the non-custodial parent – is responsible for paying basic child support, whereas both parents are typically responsible for ancillary expenses.

This brings us to how those medical and child care costs that are considered ancillary expenses are shared. In divorce or child support proceedings, the ancillary expenses are often shared in proportion to their individual incomes. So, one parent might be ordered to pay 60 percent of a child’s ancillary expenses, while the other parent pays the remaining 40 percent. For example, if a child has an uncovered medical expense of $100, under the above parameters, one parent would pay $60 and the other parent $40. A Judge or Support Magistrate will determine the percentages. The parents can determine if they want to make reimbursement to each other in order to pay the full expense, or if each will pay their portion of the bill directly to the applicable party (i.e. insurance company, child care professional).

As with basic child support, parents must pay ancillary expenses until their child(ren) reach 21 years of age, or until a child is able to gain legal emancipation, which can’t happen until the child is at least 16 years old and is able to fully support himself or herself with an income. Failure to provide court-ordered ancillary expenses can lead to further litigation between the parties.

It is best for parents going through a divorce or Family Court child support proceeding to be honest with each other if they are going to have difficulty meeting their child support responsibilities, including these defined ancillary expenses. This is not always possible, especially if the divorce or support proceeding is contentious. However, it is far worse for one person to withhold his or her share of child support and the “add-ons” without notifying the other person as to the reason(s) why he or she cannot meet their obligation. Even if it’s something as benign as repaying a former partner for shouldering the full burden of a pediatrician’s office co-payment, the person should be forthright about not being able to help with a child support-related ancillary expense. However, be sure to speak to your attorney before making any statements that could be construed against you if brought up in court.

If one parent steadfastly refuses to pay his or her share of ancillary expenses, the other parent should consult his or her attorney about enforcement options. An attorney may suggest negotiating a new payment agreement to shift some of the financial burden more towards one parent if that person can adequately handle the increase. Failing that option, the matter can be taken up before a Supreme or Family Court judge or Support Magistrate, who can determine whether the defaulting parent has a legal reason for not paying their share of the ancillary expenses. If the judge determines that the parent does not have legal grounds for non-payment, the matter is treated as if the parent failed to pay child support and can lead to wage garnishment, liens on property, suspension of drivers or professional licenses, or even terms of Probation or jail time.

At its core, ancillary expenses are a way for divorcing or separating parents to remain involved in their children’s lives because they share in paying for their children’s primary needs. However, if one parent shirks his or her responsibilities without proper justification, it can lead to acrimony between both sides. Attorneys should advise their clients about what is and is not considered an ancillary expense, and they should encourage them to maintain open channels of communication to ensure that parents do what is necessary for their children.

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