What “Counts” as Income for the Purposes of a Child Support Order?

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In Massachusetts, the amount of weekly child support to be paid by a parent is calculated by relying on the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines, which are published by the Executive Office of the Massachusetts Trial Court and updated every three years. Although it is a simple proposition to say that child support orders are largely based on the parents’ respective incomes, it is important to understand what is included as “income” by the Probate and Family Court in determining a child support obligation.  The Guidelines themselves take the broadest possible approach to defining income, stating that “income is defined as gross income from whatever source, regardless of whether that income is recognized by the Internal Revenue Code or reported to the Internal Revenue Service or state Department of Revenue or other taxing authority.”  The Guidelines go on to list 29 different types of income which are presumptively included in a parent’s income for child support purposes, including, among other items, salaries, wages, overtime, tips, commissions, severance pay, royalties, interest and dividends, bonuses, certain government benefits, workers’ compensation, distributions from trusts, pension and annuity income, capital gains, lottery or gambling winnings, prizes and awards, and rental income.

In addition to this all-inclusive definition of income, the Guidelines also provide that the Probate and Family Court has the right to impute or attribute income to a child support payor in appropriate cases. Income may be imputed in cases where the payor has actual resources available to him or her which are not reported to the Court, whether for tax purposes (for example, “under the table” employment income) or because the resource is not considered taxable income by the IRS. See, e.g., Crowe v. Fong (holding that the trial judge correctly characterized a father’s free use of a home and vehicle as “perquisite or in-kind income” that should be considered as part of the father’s income for the purposes of determining his child support obligation).  In contrast, income can be attributed in cases where the Court finds that the payor has the present ability to earn more income than he or she is currently earning (for example, when a payor is voluntarily underemployed).


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