Citation. Downing v. Downing, 45 S.W.3d 449, 2001)
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Brief Fact Summary.
Sharon filed a motion to increase Donald’s child support obligations as a result of a substantial increase in his monthly income.
Synopsis of Rule of Law.
This Court follows the Income Shares Model, under which a child should receive the same proportion o parental income that the child would have received if the parent’s had not been divorced.
Donald and Sharon Downing were divorced in 1992. She received sole custody of the children. In 1998 she filed a motion to increase Donald’s child support obligations based upon a substantial increase in his income. The Domestic Relations Commissioner (DRC) found that his monthly income had increased by $40,000. The Commissioner recognized that this greatly exceeded the highest level set in the child support guidelines, and determined that he would increase the child support at a rate of 4% of combined income based on the approximate percentage increases at the high income end of the chart.
Did the DRC err by relying primarily upon a mathematical equation in increasing Donald’s child support obligations?
The trial court erred by failing to take into consideration the reasonable needs of the children and the standard of living enjoyed by the parents.
The child support guidelines serve as a rebuttable presumption for modification of child support, which the court may deviate from only upon making a specific finding that application would be unjust or inappropriate. The guidelines also specifically designated that combined monthly adjusted parental gross income in excess of the guidelines is a valid basis for deviating from the table.
The DRC set out three considerations for his determination of the appropriate level of support: 1) the reasonable needs of the children; 2) the standard of living enjoyed by the parents; 3) a mathematical projection of the child support guidelines.
These guidelines are based on the Income Shares Model, with the premise being that a child should receive the same proportion of parental income that the child would have received had the parents not divorced. The table demonstrates that as parental income increases, the proportion of income spent on child support decreases.
Sharon requests the court to take the share the wealth approach, where the reasonable amount of support varies based on the circumstances and resources of the parties, with the child’s entitled standard of living increasing with the parent’s income. This Court rejects this approach because the benefits of such an approach tend to accrue to the custodial parent rather than the children. It also transfers most discretionary spending on children to the custodial parent.
Child support must be set in an amount reasonably and rationally related to the realistic needs of the children. Because the DRC relied almost exclusively on the mathematical calculation, his decision was arbitrary. There was no evidence the needs of the children had changed. Assessment of the child’s reasonable needs should also be based on the parent’s financial ability to meet those needs and the standard of living during the marriage.
The Court analogizes its decision to the “Three Pony Rule,” meaning that no child, no matter how wealthy the parents, needs to be provided with more than three ponies.