High Wage Earners & When Courts Deviate from the Child Support Guidelines

In a reversal, the Second District held that the trial court must, per Fam C §4056, state on the record its reasons for deviating from guideline child support, concluding that guideline support would exceed the child’s reasonable needs without finding of why it was in child’s best interests was an error.

Facts of the Case

In July of 2006, an affair between Mother and Father resulted in Mother giving birth to their daughter, Z. Initially, Father, who is a well-off director with a wife and three kids, offers to pay some of Mother’s and Z’s expenses, and gave Mother $5,000 a month. Mother, who was a hair stylist at the time and reporting a monthly earning of $1,833 agreed to this, and it wasn’t until October of 2014 that she petitioned for formal child support. This petition would require Father to pay for Z’s health insurance, uninsured health and all extracurricular activities. After this was filed, Mother also sought discovery of nearly every aspect of Father’s income and expenses, including his children’s tuition expenses and medical insurance.

Father responded with just a declaration of his salary, which was $2.2 million a year, stating that per Fam C §4057, he could pay any child support order commensurate with Z’s reasonable needs.

Eventually, Father reported an annual salary $2.1 million, monthly rent of $20,000 and a total of over $40,000 a month in other expenses including groceries, entertainment, and expenses for his other kids. He submitted a DissoMaster report, which stated guideline support would be around $11,840 a month. Father contended that $11,840 a month would exceed Mother and Z’s needs and that he should be exempt from guideline support calculations. After finding out that Father is an extraordinarily high earner, the trial court focused on Mother’s income and expenses and concluded that indeed guideline support would exceed Z’s needs.

They ordered Father to pay an amount less than guideline support. When Mother’ attorney tries to make the case that Mother and Z’s previous expenses have no relevance to their current needs, the trial court placed the burden on Mother to state how her daughter's reasonable needs would not be met by the order. Then in the trial court’s final order, there was never any explicit reason given as to why the court deviated from guideline support calculations. Mother appealed, and the Second District agreed with her.

Rulings of the Case

The second court found that the original court failed to comply with Fam C §4056(a) because it did not give any oral or written explanation as to why they chose to not award guideline support. Since there was a failure to comply with federal law regarding child support guidelines, there were grounds for reversal. The second court noted that when a higher earner is involved like Father, the trial court shouldn’t have measured Z’s reasonable needs based on Mother’s previous earnings and expenses, but instead on Father’s disposable income and standard of living. So that Z can enjoy the approximate lifestyle enjoyed by Father while in mother’s care, custody, and control.

Ultimately, the court found that the lower court should not have placed the burden on Mother to prove that guideline support was necessary, but instead place the burden on Father to show why the usual and standard calculation of child support wasn’t necessary or was too much in his particular case.

The Takeaway from the Case

Obviously, we do not have many situations in which a “high wage earner” is involved. A high wage earner has not been defined by bright-line rules and the court did not decide that issue here. A high wage earner will be an income of at least one million dollars per year. In this case, the court clearly defined the burden of proof is on the high wage earner to prove to the court that the guideline child support would be too high. “High earner has the burden of showing that guideline would be unjust or inappropriate…”

Our family law attorneys have had one case that resulted in our client obtaining a $18,000-per-month child support order against a well-known sports figure who was a high wage earner. These are not everyday cases, but there are instances in which the court has the discretion to deviate from guideline child support.

The attorneys at the Law Offices of H. William Edgar are dedicated to the practice of family law and juvenile dependency matters. We have offices in Riverside, Temecula, Anaheim and Palm Desert, and we are committed to helping you get the results that your family deserves. Contact us online or by calling (888) 251-9618 to review your options.