Q: My ex and I are getting a divorce. We get along pretty well and we don't want to spend a bunch of money that we could otherwise use to raise our children haggling about child support in court. Can we come up with our own agreement, rather than getting attorneys and a judge involved?
A: If you and your ex are on pretty civil terms, in most states you can write your own child support agreement. As long as the needs of the children are being met, the courts will approve pretty much anything the two of you come up with. And since no one knows your kids, their needs, and your own individual financial situations better than you and your ex, your agreement will undoubtedly be a lot more reasonable for everyone.
Before you start working on your own child support agreement, ask your attorney or mediator to tell you what the state guidelines would be in your case-sometimes they actually work out okay. If you're not happy with the guideline figure, the two of you should put together an accurate list of your individual incomes and expenses, as well as a complete list of child-related expenses. Once you've done that, you'll have to figure out a way of dividing them fairly-and that isn't always easy.
One particularly good way is to split the child-related expenses according to the percentage of your combined income that each of you earns. So if together the two of you make $65,000 and you bring in $40,000 of that, your share of the expenses 62 percent. Each month, then, you would write her a check for 62% of the budgeted amount, minus, of course, any expenses you pay for directly, such as school tuition and medical insurance.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you and your ex are drafting a child support agreement:
- Limit the agreement to child support. Any other non-child-related financial business each of you has with the other shouldn't be included in this arrangement.
- Be honest. Don't lie about your income or do anything to deliberately lower it. And don't overestimate your expenses.
- Be fair. Any agreement you and your ex come up with will have to be approved by a judge.
- Be understanding. If you're making a lot of money, your ex may resent you for it.
- Neither of you can waive support completely. You can, however, set each other's child support payments at zero. The judge can then approve your proposal but leave the door open for change later on if anyone's circumstances change.
- Be flexible. Renegotiate your agreement every year, or more often, if the situation calls for it. Any change in your or your ex's financial situation can have a dramatic effect on your children.
- Allow for contingencies. If you lose your job or get injured or incapacitated, your support payments should go down. If you win the lottery, they should go up.
- Try to keep payments in percentage terms rather than flat dollar amounts. This is especially important if your income fluctuates. (Say, for example, you're a carpenter and you don't get much work in the winters).
- Avoid automatic cost-of-living escalator clauses in your agreement. Discuss actual changes in expense and income in your annual review.
- Ask for a complete accounting. If you're paying for support, you have a right to know how it's being spent.
- Do not agree to pay more support than is truly fair just because you think it'll help you feel less guilty about having left your spouse and children.
A great dad himself, Armin speaks not only as a specialist in parenting, but as a parent himself. He has written several books including The Expectant Father and Fathering Your Toddler.