Child Support Modifications – What Divorced Couples Need to Know

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After a 3-year battle, the contentious divorce between former Grey’s Anatomy star Jesse Williams and his ex-wife, real estate agent Aryn Drake-Lee became final last fall. However, their custody dispute dragged on and finally settled in March—they now officially share legal and physical custody of their two young children.

But that isn’t the end of the story. After a 12-year run, Williams is no longer working on Grey’s Anatomy. He left the hit show to star in the Broadway revival of the 2003 baseball play, “Take Me Out,” for which he earns $1668/week—compared to the $6.2 million paycheck, plus over $180,000 in residuals that he made on Grey’s in 2019. Still pending is a motion Williams filed to reduce his child support obligation of $40,000/month, which he has been paying since 2019.

Although this case is high-profile, high-conflict, and involves Hollywood-sized numbers, it raises real-life questions about the circumstances under which one can modify court-ordered child support arrangements.

It’s not unusual to renegotiate child support. In California, either parent can request a modification if there is proof of a “significant change in circumstances.”

In the family law system, both parents are responsible for the financial support of their children. Still, the parents’ respective incomes are essential in calculating how much is owed and received.

There are several situations in which the court will consider making a change to the support established by your divorce decree. The request may result in an increase or decrease and can be requested by either parent.

Here are some of the circumstances the court will consider:

  • Change in employment. One parent is laid-off, fired or demoted, given fewer hours or a severe pay cut, or forced to move into a lower-paying job or industry. Except under certain conditions—such as going back to school to improve job prospects or a good faith career change—voluntarily leaving a job doesn’t count. Suppose you intentionally adjust your employment by cutting back hours or taking a lower-paying position to avoid paying higher child support. In that case, the court may impute your income—calculate child support based on your previous/potential earnings.
  • Other change in income. The child support arrangement in your divorce decree may not account for unexpected changes in income such as a big promotion.
  • Changes to custody or visitation arrangements. For example, typically, a lower-earning parent who has more child care responsibilities will receive a higher amount, but if the balance of care shifts, the higher-earning parent may be able to modify the payment owed.
  • Major financial changes related to the child’s needs. Your child may suddenly have more expensive needs for their education, health care, child care, activities, or support services such as therapy.
  • Change in family size. A parent has a child with a new spouse or adopts.
  • New disability or illness prevents you from working or performing child care obligations.
  • Incarceration or military service takes you away from your job or custody responsibilities.

When pursuing a modification to child support, whether an increase or decrease, as payer or recipient, you will need to provide documentation of your change in circumstances. The court may review proof of all that apply:

  • Income
  • Employment
  • Unemployment benefits
  • Retirement income
  • Living expenses
  • Child care expenses
  • Tax returns
  • Medical insurance
  • Disability status
  • Incarceration status
  • Military deployment

You will also need a copy of your current custody and visitation order.

As always, the court’s job is to look after the child’s best interests. When a request is filed, the judge will look at many factors, including who primarily cares for the children.   Is there sufficient proof that a modification is needed? Is there any evidence that one party is profiting from the current support arrangement at the expense of the other?

Several factors make the Williams/Drake-Lee situation less than clear-cut. Drake–Lee contends that Williams voluntarily left a lucrative, long-running show contract to pursue personal goals, prioritizing career dreams over family obligations. She believes he shouldn’t have given up his television job if he couldn’t make his support payments. On the other hand, Williams argues that his move was essential to his career and artistic growth and that he believed Grey’s was wrapping up anyway. He feels $40K/month is unnecessary as the children live a “modest lifestyle” that a reduction would not impact. He also says that Drake-Lee hasn’t been working and that she should return to her job in real estate. As of late March, there was no ruling in this case.

If you’re considering a motion to modify your child support arrangement, the family law experts at SFLG can help you sort through the specific facts of your case to secure the best outcome. We routinely litigate complex asset division on behalf of clients with million-dollar incomes and multimillion-dollar marital estates. All of our lawyers are accomplished and well-versed in the nuances of California family law, which enables us to readily assign solid teams for our incoming cases.

By Debra Schoenberg

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