The Colorado Child Support Guidelines
When the parents of a child divorce, or were never married, Colorado law provides for the payment of child support. Child support is directed by a mathematical formula set forth in C.R.S. 14-10-115. While the amount of support is affected by almost a dozen factors, by far the most important are the incomes of mother and father (but as noted below, there is a cap for high income earners). The formulas and the factors that decide child support are known throughout the family law word as “The Guidelines”.
So how do the Guidelines work exactly? Well, the child support formula is complicated, but the basic process is that you start by adding the parents’ incomes together. Based on the combined income and the number of children, the statute sets the basic combined child support amount, and the parents pay the amount proportional to their incomes.
For example, let’s say a couple has one child and they make together $10,000 a month. The Guidelines state that such a couple should have a support obligation of $1,215 a month. Let’s say that mom has primary custody (the formula is different if the parents have joint-custody) and both parents make $5,000/month each. That means dad will owe 50% of $1,215 as he makes 50% of the total, or $607.50. Mom’s share is taken care of by the fact that she’s paying living expenses as the primary caregiver. If on the other hand, mom makes $2,500/month and dad makes $7,500/month, he’ll owe 75% of $1,215 – $911.25.
Like I said, it’s complicated. And this is before you start to factor in the various credits that either side could be eligible for. Because the Guidelines are so complicated, every family law attorney and judge in the state has a child support calculator that does all the math for us. The support amount, after factors are considered, is called the “presumptive amount”. Judges have the ability to deviate from the presumptive amount, up or down, but rarely do.
Child Support For High Income Earners
The Guidelines are long. The table identifies the amount of support owed by parents given every monthly combined income starting at $100, and goes all the way to $30,000/mo, at $50 increments. So what happens to high income earners fortunate enough to make a combined income of more than $360,000/yr? Does the child support cap out, or can high income earners be made to pay above the guidelines (i.e. extrapolation)?
A recent decision of the Colorado Supreme Court addresses this issue. In Boettcher,1In re: Marriage of Boettcher, 2019 CO 81. the parents collectively made over $100K/mo, most of it the father’s income, which was well over the $30,000 per month maximum identified by the Guidelines.
Extrapolate vs Cap for High Income Earners
Father, who was paying child support, argued that his child support obligation should be capped at the $1425 which would be owing if their combined incomes were exactly $30,000 per month. Mother argued that the children should share in the father’s good fortune, and the court should extrapolate beyond the Colorado Guidelines. If the normal child support guideline formula were extrapolated above the guidelines cap, the result would be father owing over $5000/mo of support – a massive difference based upon his higher income.
The trial court, finding it had discretion, rejected both the mother’s argument for full extrapolation, and the father’s argument to cap his child support obligation at $1425/mo, and ordered $3000/mo support. The father appealed, and the Colorado Court of Appeals upheld the award, finding that the statutory cap was the minimum support allowed, and the trial court could exceed that without it constituting a deviation from the Guidelines that required specific findings.
Deviate from Guidelines for High Income Earners?
The Colorado Supreme Court granted the father’s request for certiorari. The Court first noted the standard to deviate from the Guidelines:
“A court may deviate from the schedule if it determines that the presumptive amount would be inequitable, unjust, or inappropriate. When it does so, the court must make written or oral findings identifying the presumptive amount and its reasons for deviating.”Boettcher.2In re: Marriage of Boettcher, 2019 CO 81, ¶ 14. (Cleaned Up).
The Court further identified that the reasons for deviating from the guidelines are identified by C.R.S. 14-10-115(2)(b) and are, but not limited to:
- the financial resources of the child;
- the financial resources of the custodial parent;
- the standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the marriage not been dissolved;
- the physical and emotional condition of the child and his or her educational needs;
- the financial resources and needs of the noncustodial parent
Normally, when a judge who deviates from the guidelines must make a finding that the deviation is due to the fact that the presumptive amount is inequitable, unjust, or inappropriate pursuant to C.R.S. 14-10-115(8)(e). Examples of these situations I have seen include parents who had to pay parole costs before child support otherwise they’d go back to jail, or when the custodial parent’s new spouse was quite wealthy and happy to help while the non-custodial parent was barely scraping by.
Supreme Court – Not Deviation for Court to Exceed Guidelines Cap
The Supreme Court rejected the father’s argument that extrapolation beyond the $30K cap was, like the situations above, a deviation from the Guidelines that required special findings from the trial court:
“Section 14-10-115(7)(a)(II)(E) expressly provides that the district court has discretion to determine the appropriate child support amount when the parties’ combined adjusted gross income exceeds the uppermost level of the schedule, except that the presumptive basic child support obligation shall not be less than it would be based on the highest level of adjusted gross income set forth in the schedule of basic child support obligations. This language is clear that, while an award lower than that provided in the schedule would be a deviation from the presumptive award and would require findings as provided in section 14-10-115(8)(e), a higher amount may be awarded within the district court’s discretion.”Boettcher.4In re: Marriage of Boettcher, 2019 CO 81, ¶ 17 (Cleaned Up) (Emphasis added).
So while the trial court is required to consider all relevant statutory factors when determining support above the cap, it is not required to make specific findings as would be required for a deviation. Boettcher.5In re: Marriage of Boettcher, 2019 CO 81, ¶ 18 (Cleaned Up).
In short, if you and your ex combined make more than $30K/mo, you will pay at least the maximum support amount from the Guidelines, and the trial court has discretion to order even more, without making any special findings.
Maintenance for High Income Earners
While the Court only addressed a high income earner’s obligation to pay child support above the guidelines, note that Colorado also has maintenance guidelines contained in C.R.S. 14-10-114. And maintenance has an even lower cap than child support, maxing out at a combined $20/000/mo. As the Colorado Court of Appeals has recently ruled, the maintenance guidelines have no applicability above that threshold, so with high income earners, the court is not even permitted to simply apply the guidelines.