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Tom Martin Jan. 1, 2017

Colorado state law - like that in every other state - mandates that parents have myriad rights and responsibilities when it comes to their children. For example, parents generally have the right to enjoy a relationship with their children, and, within limits, to make decisions regarding how their children are raised (provided such decisions don't endanger the child's welfare or well-being). Parents must also ensure that their child's basic needs are met, i.e., that he or she has food, clothing and shelter, and that he or she is getting an education.

Another legally mandated responsibility is that parents provide the financial means with which to raise their children. This is known as "child support," and it is covered in Section 14-10-115 of the Colorado Revised Statutes as part of the state's Uniform Dissolution of Marriage Act.

The relevant law

The statutes provide a well-reasoned rationale for why parents should provide financial support for their children as well as a method by which support for children across the state - from all walks of life and all manner of economic station - can be determined. The end goal of the statute is to allow guidelines and a "schedule" of support amounts that will help judges and state officials make decisions about appropriate child support amounts that are fair and equitable for every family, regardless of financial situation.

Child support is, broadly, a percentage of income that takes into consideration the approximate standard of living the child would have had if the parents had been in a single household raising the children, extraordinary expenses necessary to properly care for the child, as well as "physical care arrangements" for the child (i.e. the custody schedule set forth in the allocation of parental responsibilities). For purposes of the statute, "extraordinary expenses" in refers to medical care necessary to treat any special needs of the child as well as daycare expenses necessitated by work/job responsibilities of the custodial parent.

Considerations above and beyond the guidelines

Though the guidelines exist to help judges and state officials making these difficult child support determinations, they cannot be applied in a vacuum. Yes, the guidelines exist for a reason, but there are also extenuating circumstances that must be considered in order to ensure the best result for each individual family. Judges tasked with making these types of decisions must consider the totality of the circumstances, and not just plug the family's financial information into the child support calculator and be done with it.

Such relevant factors to consider - and questions that judges may need to ask, given a family's particular circumstances - include:

  • Financial resources of the child (Is there a special trust set up to provide for the child's medical needs because of a legal settlement or the generosity of a relative? Does a third party - like a grandparent - cover the cost of the child's medical care? Are there other financial resources set aside specifically to provide for the child?)

  • Financial resources of the custodial parent (Is the custodial parent someone with significantly greater assets than the non-custodial parent? Does the custodial parent have set-aside funds earmarked for the child's care, such as a family trust?)

  • The standard of living the child would have been subject to had the parents stayed together (If the parents hadn't divorced or broken up, would the child have been in a better financial position? A worse one? Is it possible, through child support payments, to put the child on the same financial "playing field" he or she would have been on in the first place?)

  • Special physical, emotional or educational needs of the child (Does the child have any medical conditions, emotional disorders or learning disabilities that require special treatment? Is the cost of such treatment above and beyond standard care received by otherwise similarly situated children who don't have such conditions? Will treatment of these conditions have an impact on the custodial parent's financial ability to meet the child's other needs?)

  • Financial resources of the non-custodial parent (Is the non-custodial parent significantly wealthier than the custodial parent? Does the non-custodial parent enjoy a better economic station due in part to his or her not providing primary care for the children? Is there a way, through child support payments, to ensure that the child receives the benefits of the non-custodial parent's higher income and has a better standard of living?)

Child support guidelines and calculators

As mentioned previously, the Colorado legislature has provided child support guidelines to ensure that each child will receive a minimum amount of support. These guidelines are available for download for free from the Colorado Judicial Branch. Essentially, the guidelines provide a set minimum of support that a child should receive given the adjusted gross income of the parents as well as the number of children at issue. These are only guidelines, though, and judges have the discretion to deviate from guideline amounts when circumstances warrant.

For example, the guidelines dictate that, when the combined adjusted gross income of the parties is less than $1,100 per month, then the child support guideline for one child is $50. For two children in that same family, the amount would increase to a minimum of $70. Should the adjusted gross income of the family be higher, say $3,000 per month, then the minimum support amount for one child increases dramatically, to $533; that amount jumps to $821 if two children are involved, and to $1,231 if the family has five minor children. If, however, the judge knows that one child has significant medical expenses, then the support amount could be raised accordingly to account for those.

The importance of legal help

You may be thinking to yourself that these guidelines are relatively straightforward and that you can use the state-provided child support calculators to determine a support amount on your own. There's something you are likely forgetting, though: the calculators and guidelines are only as useful - and as accurate - as the information you are putting into them.

Let's say that you have custody of your two small children. You work a steady job, for which you are paid standard, W-2 wages. Your former spouse, though, is self-employed. His income fluctuates seasonally and it is difficult to determine an average salary for him. In addition, your child has a medical condition that requires extraordinary treatment. In order to use the worksheets and calculators, though, you need to have accurate information about your family's true financial situation, including your former spouse's income, the costs of medical care and any other contingencies; otherwise, the amount provided for by the guidelines may not be sufficient to actually cover the child's financial needs.

This is where an experienced family law attorney can prove greatly beneficial. When you seek the assistance of a lawyer with years of dealing with child custody and support matters, you will find someone with intimate knowledge of the guidelines and calculators used by family courts, and someone with the resources necessary to ensure that your family's true financial picture is provided to the judge. An attorney can help determine your spouse's actual income and can help put a dollar value on your child's medical treatment to ensure that the amount of support ordered actually reflects your unique economic situation.

If you need help with child custody, support, divorce or any other family-related legal issue, seek the advice of a skilled family law attorney like those at the Fort Collins, Colorado-based Law Office of Thomas W. Martin.