As every parent with a California child support case knows, Court orders must adhere to the Statewide Uniform Guideline as set forth in Family Code ྷ4055; unless the Court finds that the Payor has a net (take home) pay of $1,500.00 or less per month (reduced to $1,000.00 per month in 2021) or one of the exceptions in Family Code ྷ4057. The most common exceptions are:
- Stipulations (agreements between parents);
- The sale of the family residence is deferred pursuant to Family Code ྷ3800 and the rental value of the residence exceeds the cost of the mortgage, property taxes and insurance; or
- A parent is found to be an extraordinarily high-earner and the guideline amount exceeds the needs of the child.
While the high-earner exception is not common, when it occurs the Payor must first prove that he or she is a “high earner,” and why a support amount less than the guideline meets the needs of the child. The recipient parent may then want to present their own evidence of the child’s needs.
One example of a high-earner case is S.P. vs. F.G. (2016) 4 CA 5th 921, in which the father earned $4,000,000,000.00 per year and a guideline support order was $40,000.00 per month. The recipient mother wanted $35,000.00 per month and the Payor father wanted $10,000.00 per month, which is the amount he had been voluntarily paying. The mother offered no evidence that the child’s needs were not met by the voluntary payments. The Court ordered father to pay $14,840.00 per month. The Trial Court decision was affirmed as providing for the child’s needs.
Shortly after the S.P. decision, the Court decided Y.R. vs. A.F. (2017) 9 CA 5th 974. In Y.R., the mother requested guideline support of $25,000.00 per month. The father argued that Mother only needed $7,000.00 per month to meet the historic expenses of the child. The Trial Court ordered $8,500.00 per month plus the father was to pay the child’s private school tuition. The Court of Appeals reversed and said that “historic expenses” ignored the father’s current standard of living and was therefore not in compliance with his obligation to support the child according to his current circumstances and station in life.
Because the recipient in S.P. did not prove that the child’s needs were not met by the historic needs the Trial Court was confirmed, whereas in Y.R., the Trial Court was reversed because it ignored the needs of the child as measured by the parent’s current station in life.
Most recently, in August 2018, the Court decided Marriage of MacIlwaine 26 CA 5th 514 in which the Trial Court found that the father was a high-earner and relied upon the mother’s historic expenditures to determine the children’s needs and set support in accordance with those expenditures. In reversing the Trial Court, the Appellant Court stated that children are entitled to the standard of living attainable by the parent’s income. It is not limited by what the mother can afford to spend under the current support order. MacIlwaine then went on to hold that the cost of meeting the needs of the supported child must be independently determined. It cannot be decided by the historic expenses of the child. MacIlwaine at 536.
The takeaway from these three recent cases on high-earners is that the extraordinarily high income exception to the guideline is not easy to prove and requires evidence to establish the child’s needs rather than simply relying upon the recipient parent’s historical expenses.