Under the Federal Child Support Guidelines, there are certain rules that apply specifically to calculating child support in cases where a “shared custody” arrangement is in place. The Guidelines define this as being those situations where a parent has access or physical custody of a child for “not less than 40 percent of the time over the course of the year”. (And note that the fact that parent with access newly hits that 40 percent mark does not mean that he or she automatically pays less child support; it means only that a court is required to take certain specified factors into account in setting support amounts in such cases).
But how is that 40 percent threshold properly determined? By counting days? Hours? Minutes?
A recent case called L. (L.) v. C. (M.) adds clarity to this precise question. The court described the problem it was being asked to consider this way:
The mother and father have both provided calendars that apply their interpretation of the access and custody order. The father, who calculates his time in days (overnights), concludes that his access time is over 40 percent. The mother, who calculates in hours, concludes that the father’s access falls well below 40 percent. Both parties are very aware that this 40 percent threshold is significant. I have now calculated based on their assertions and my conclusions and clarification.
The court then turned to reviewing the process by which the 40 percent custody is to be evaluated. For one thing, it noted that the Guidelines are not clear on precisely how the calculation is to be realized, and there is no court-endorsed universal method. On the other hand, it is clear that the threshold is strict, and that a court is not entitled to “round up” in cases that are on the border.
Next, the court observed that if a “days”-based approach is used, then a parent with access must have the child in his or her care for 146 days per year. If the calculation is based on “hours”, then the 40 percent threshold lies at 3504 hours per year. The method used can make a big difference. The court wrote:
With the changes in support that can stem from proceeding under s. 9 [the Guideline’s “shared parenting” provision] and the strict setting of the 40 percent threshold, this calculation can be extremely significant. At times, calculating in days versus hours makes just the difference that moves the access parent into a situation where they exercise 40 percent access …. For this reason, applying the appropriate method of calculation is crucial.
The answer as to which approach to take, according to the court, may have to be determined case-by-case. The Guidelines do advocate for a flexible and robust consideration of the parents’ individual circumstances; in some (though not all) circumstances, units smaller than days may be the fairest method of determining whether the 40 percent threshold has been reached. This can include an hourly accounting of time in the right circumstances.
(And as an aside, it is important to note that the calculation is based on the time the child is in the care and control of the parent, including time spent with nannies, or at school or daycare, and time that the child spends sleeping at the parent’s house, etc. It does not count that the parent is merely physically present with the child).
Here, the court used the hourly approach and determined that the child was in the mother’s custody 67.4 percent of the time, and was with the father 32.6 percent of the time. The “shared parenting” threshold of 40 percent was not met in this case.
For the full text of the decision, see: