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The Montana Supreme Court and Child Support

In one way, the Montana Supreme Court has very little to do with child support. But, on a larger scale – they’ve got everything to do with it. I’ll try to explain that better, but first – let’s talk about the make up of courts in Montana.

Our judicial system is made up of different levels of Courts. Generally, it’s easiest to think of them in terms of the size of the area they represent. So first we have city courts. Not all towns across Montana have them, but you’ll find them in the incorporated cities of our state. They’re the smallest courts because they’re jurisdiction is limited to city limits. There are a number of other limitations on city courts, but the most important one for our purposes today is that they can’t hear child support issues. In fact, they can’t make decisions regarding family law matters at all (except orders of protection, but that’s not really family law).

The next step up is Justice Courts. Montana Justice Courts are tied to counties. Usually they’re found in the county seat (although there are a few exceptions) and they deal with smaller civil and criminal matters. So, for example: the longest that you can be sentenced for a criminal violation in justice court is 6 months. If the charge has a possible penalty beyond that, then things move up to District Court. Just like city courts, justice courts have no jurisdiction over family law – so child support matters are not dealt with there.

The largest trial courts we have in Montana are the District Courts. Again, they are tied to counties, but they hear anything and everything. Although the other courts have a limit on how big of cases they can hear, District Court has no such limit. And, interestingly, it’s got no limit they other way. District Courts can hear the biggest cases, and the smallest cases. And, they are the only trial courts in the state with jurisdiction over child support matters and other family law issues. If you are bringing a child support claim in Montana (in court) you have to do it in District Court.

And now, we finally get to the Montana Supreme Court. Although the District Court’s have original jurisdiction over child support cases (that’s where they start) the Supreme Court has the power to review any decisions made by any courts in the state. This does NOT mean that you can have your child support hearing all over again at the Supreme Court, but it does mean that the Supreme Court can review the record and the decisions made by the District Court – and examine it to see if any mistakes of law were made.

The Supreme Court makes the ultimate decisions on interpreting law and the constitution. They’re the ones who decide what all the guidelines really mean. And when they make a decision about what it means, everyone is bound by that decision going forward. So, getting back to what I said originally – the Supreme Court has very little to do with Child Support because they won’t be making the decisions about your case. But they have everything to do with it, because they’ve been handing down rulings for years and years that tell us what the guidelines really mean and what the right way to go about doing the calculations is. And, if the District Court makes a mistake in your case – the Supreme Court can correct it on appeal.

Announcing Tax Estimations

Creating a good child support calculation means providing as much information as possible. That’s why we recommend having previous income tax returns and W-2s for both you and the other parent when you’re creating one. But let’s face it, that’s not always possible. Sometimes you just have to make due with what you’ve got. Well today we’re proud to announce that we can help you do a little more with what you have.

An often overlooked aspect of the child support guidelines is that they allow estimations of tax in cases where that information is not available. So, for example, if your other parent is being uncooperative or you’re just trying to create a calculation with the information you have on hand. The estimation process uses some complicated IRS formulas and tax tables to come up with a decent approximation of what your other parents might owe. Here at the Montana Child Support Calculator, it didn’t make a lot of sense to us that we’d do the math on the calculation for you – but leave you high and dry when it came to the calculations. So we rolled up our sleeves and made the whole process automatic. Now, just click the “Estimate Taxes” button for either the mother or the father, and we’ll take care of the rest. Just enter as much information as you know about their income and other expenses. One thing to be aware of, if you’ve entered any information for their Federal Income, State Income, SS, or EITC – doing this will wipe that out and replace is with our estimates.

The rules allow you to use this any time you don’t have more accurate information, but we advise you to use it wisely. Remember, the best calculation is the most accurate calculation. And the most accurate calculation is the one based on the best information. Estimation is a vital tool for lots of people needing child support calculations. But it shouldn’t necessarily be your first response.

We’ll continue to make creating Montana Child Support Calculations as easy as possible, and (hopefully) you’ll keep using us to create them. Thanks everyone for all the support we’ve received.

The Rebuttable Presumption of Child Support

The Montana child support guidelines and worksheets produce a determination of what parent owes to another in child support. Our laws assume that this number (sometimes called the “bottom line”) is correct. But, our law also recognizes that sometimes the result may need to be altered. Our laws, the guidelines, the administrative rules, all the factors that go in to calculating child support cover a huge number of possible outcomes. But they can’t cover everything. And in those rare cases where something unexpected is taking place, the law allows for a deviation from the bottom line.

Here’s how it works: The guidelines create a presumption of adequacy and reasonableness of child support awards. The bottom line is usually right. But, every case must be determined on its own merits. So, if in your situation the guidelines result is unfair or inadequate, then a different determination may be appropriate. If you can show that a child’s needs are not being met, then you’re on your way to establishing that a deviation is appropriate.

If one of the parties requests it, the final outcome of the calculation can be rebutted and a variance from the guidelines can be entered that better accounts for the best interests of the child. The written order accompanying the variance MUST contain a specific written finding showing justification that application of the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate. This also needs to include a statement identifying what the bottom line would have been without the adjustment.

Remember, variations are rare. The presumption usually stands, and it takes significant and credible evidence to successfully rebut it. But, if you are in a unique or unusual circumstance – take heart. The law is flexible enough to allow for consideration of your circumstances and gives the Court the latitude to make appropriate rulings accordingly.

2012 Montana Child Support Guidelines

In 2012, a number of significant changes were introduced to the Montana Child Support Guidelines and Worksheets. The most obvious change is that a new worksheet was introduced. Although it’s essentially identical to the previous version, it has an entirely new look that is obvious at a glance. Overall, it’s easier to read and provides a clearer and more succinct end result. But, a number of changes were made to the rules as well that can produce different outcomes in calculations.

For example, the guidelines income rule was divided into two different rules: 1) Actual Income; and 2) Imputed Income. For the purposes of determining child support, parents are presumed to be able to work full-time (which is usually 40 hours per week). One interesting facet of the new rule (ARM 37.62.105) is that it allows for consideration of a parent’s assets where it would be inappropriate not to do so. CSED has stated that this is intended to apply to cases in which income is lacking or does not reflect the parent’s standard of living and it may be appropriate to impute earnings to the net market value of the parent’s non-income-producing assets. It’s clear this provision is not expected to be used often.

Another interesting addition to the Child Support Guidelines is paragraph 5 of Rule 4 which addresses overtime and second job income. Both of these are to be included for child support, however – there is a distinction between mandatory and voluntary overtime. It is possible to overcome the presumption regarding voluntary overtime. If it is for a limited time and/or a specific purpose (e.g. paying extraordinary medical expenses) the presumption may be rebutted and the overtime pay not included as income for child support.

This is not an exhaustive list of the changes, just a quick note to let you know about a few of them. It’s important to remember that the child support guidelines change periodically. A old calculation may not longer be correct or accurate. Although a change in the rules is probably not enough to seek a court order for recalculation of child support, it can still have a large impact child support and calculations that are ongoing.

Montana Child Support Guidelines

Although Montana law establishes that there should be child support calculations, it doesn’t actually describe how the calculation will work. Instead, it delegates that responsibility to the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS). The department created the formula that we refer to as a child support calculation and maintains the forms which Courts rely on in reviewing the calculations. It is this calculation and those forms that we provide to you through our site. Unlike other web sites out there promising Montana child support calculations, actually uses the DPHHS guidelines and forms creating a calculation in line with what Courts and other governmental agencies expect out of a child support calculation.

The amount determined by a child support calculation is presumptively correct. Courts can deviate from it, but they need to have a good reason for doing it. But, like any calculation – the result is only as good as the variables you feed in to it. Whether you use the forms provided by DPHHS and do the hard math yourself, or use our program, the end result is only going to be as accurate as the numbers you start with. The guidelines ask for a huge amount of data focusing primarily on income and child related expenses of both parents. Information about the kids, with whom they spend their time, and some other information is also collected. Just like everything else, separated parents are known to fight about what numbers are correct to use. That’s why the more sure you can be of the numbers you start with, the more likely your final calculation is to hold up.

The guidelines are a powerful tool and required for any divorce, child custody, or child support modification action in Montana. For years, lawyers have had access to a program they used to determine these figures quickly and easily for clients. Our site offers that same ability to the public for the first time. With constant updates, you can be sure that your calculation reflects the latest guidelines from DPHHS – so whether you’re just considering taking action or are already involved in a case, sign up now to get the information you need.