The child support laws in Virginia are changing significantly, and clients should understand how this development impacts them. On July 1, 2014, the Virginia Child Support Guidelines will be revised, in some ways substantially, and will impact present and future support obligations throughout the Commonwealth. This law marks the first time since 1995 that the Virginia General Assembly has tinkered with the existing statutory guidelines. The effect on clients and potential clients, both on the paying and receiving end is significant. This will impact initial child support awards sought after July 1, 2014, and also individuals with existing child support obligations or awards under certain circumstances. For this last group, it is important to note that under existing Virginia case law, the new child support guidelines allow support recipients and payors, under certain conditions, to seek a modification with no “other” changes in the parties’ circumstances.
The revisions to Virginia Code Section 20-108.2 provide for two key changes:
the prior formula is replaced with a new formula which goes up to $35,000 in combined monthly gross income (adding the two parents together), rather than the prior ceiling of $10,000 (after which it provided simple percentages above this amount); and
it eliminates the $250 annual obligation upon the custodial parent for the child or children’s unreimbursed medical expenses, before further allocation between the parents.
The former change is the more significant, as the attached chart illustrates. Particularly for individuals whose combined monthly income exceeds $14,000 (which can include a sizeable percentage of parents in Northern Virginia), the formula provides a child support increase ranging from $200 to $400 even prior to marginal health insurance costs or work-related childcare expenses, which can drive this figure even higher. It is suspected that the thinking behind this change is to bring Virginia in line with neighboring states such as D.C. and Maryland, particularly for children of higher-earning parents who have historically received significantly less in Virginia than their D.C. and Maryland counterparts. The second change simply allocates the children’s unreimbursed medical expenses in proportion to income shares.
A copy of the full legislative change is attached to this article as well.
For existing clients paying or receiving child support, these new guidelines alone could allow them to change the child support amount after July 1, 2014. Under normal circumstances, a party seeking modification of an existing child support obligation needs show there has been a material or substantial change in circumstances which justifies the change. This discourages people from flooding the courthouse with requests to modify the current amount unless something which would drive the support amount (income, health insurance, daycare, etc.) has changed considerably. However, existing Virginia case law suggests that the imposition of new guidelines, even with nothing else, justifies changing the support amount, where the change in amount is significant. (See Milligan v. Milligan, 12 Va. App. 982 (1991), see also Slonka v. Pennline, 17 Va. App. 662 (1994) and Head v. Head, 24 Va. App. 166, 176, 480 S.E.2d 780 (1997).
How do the courts define “significant”? The courts tell us that $400 per month or $790 per month is certainly significant. There is currently no more guidance on this issue at levels lower than $400 we are aware of. However, it is important to ensure that the party seeking the modification files after July 1, as existing case law also suggests the guideline change must be in effect upon filing. Cook v. Cooke, 23 Va. App. 60, 65 (1996).
What does this mean for the individual client?
You should strongly consider seeing your counsel. Find out how this new piece of legislation impacts you specifically by running the new guidelines and have a candid conversation about the pros and cons of filing to revisit this sum. Whether or not you are the payor or the recipient, knowing in advance what sum the court will award in child support should drive your negotiation strategy in the post-July 2014 world of child support calculation.
Credit is given to Daniel L. Gray, Esq. for writing an excellent piece on this subject in the Virginia Family Law Quarterly Newsletter. The author has consulted with, and obtained permission from, Mr. Gray to write this article on a very similar topic for the benefit of this readership. Credit is also given to Lorhel Stokes, our wonderful law clerk, who drew up the excellent chart comparing support obligations under the new and old formulas.