Marriages in Oregon are terminated by a proceeding called a dissolution of marriage, commonly referred to as a divorce. When dissolving a marriage, the court can order two kinds of support: child support and spousal support (formerly called alimony).
Child support is money one parent must pay to the other parent (or directly to the child if over 18 in some circumstances) for the care, support, education and welfare of the parties' children. In Oregon, child support is generally awarded in cases involving children younger than 18, although a support obligation may continue until the child reaches 21 if the child is a "child attending school" as defined by state statute. Child support can be established through an administrative proceeding filed by the state of Oregon, through a paternity action filed by a party, in a petition for custody action between unmarried parents, or in a dissolution of marriage proceeding. In all cases, including a divorce (dissolution of marriage proceeding), child support is established by using the state's Uniform Child Support Guidelines.
Oregon's Uniform Child Support Guidelines contain a formula that takes into account the parties' income, the parties' parenting plan, child care costs, medical insurance costs and uninsured ongoing medical expenses in addition to several other factors. Oregon's child support calculator is found online at www.dcs.state.or.us/calculator. Once the parties' information is inputted into the worksheets, the formula determines a presumptively correct amount of child support. The presumed amount is generally followed unless specific findings are made that the amount is unjust and not appropriate based on the facts of the particular case.
Also, based on the same factors that determine child support, the Oregon guidelines may impose an additional obligation within a child support determination in the form of "cash medical support." Cash medical support is an additional amount a parent may be ordered to pay to help with the cost of health care coverage or to help with the uninsured medical expenses of the child.
Possible factors to justify a deviation from the presumed amount are set forth in the guidelines themselves. They include such circumstances as: other resources of a parent; necessities of a parent; net income of a parent; a parent's ability to borrow; the number and needs of other dependents; the desirability of the custodial parent to remain at home with the children; tax issues; and the financial advantage afforded a parent by living with a partner in a relationship similar to a spousal relationship. Note that judges do not commonly deviate from the presumed amount of child support.
In establishing the appropriate amount of child support, it is important to establish the parties' income. To establish a party's income, a judge will look at all earnings, income and resources of that party. This includes salaries, wages, commissions, advances, bonuses, dividends, Social Security, workers' compensation, unemployment benefits and all other sources of income. If a party has no income, that party's income will be based on "potential" income, or at least an income based on what that party can earn working full time at whatever the current minimum wage is in Oregon. Other factors that come into play in establishing the appropriate amount of child support are: the number of children; whether there are any non-joint children; the amount of parenting time (visitation) a party has with the child); and whether a party is paying or receiving spousal support.
Generally the party with more overnights with the child will receive child support from the party with fewer overnights. Child support is generally payable even if the parties have joint legal custody and 50/50 shared parenting. Depending on the parties' respective incomes, it is possible that one party will be presumed to pay child support to the other. The party with the greater income will bear a greater portion of the financial burden to support children. The guidelines may find that one party's income is only enough to support him or herself, and presume that no support should be paid, although these situations are rare.
The ordered amount of child support can be modified when there is a change in the parties' circumstances. Generally, the court will not "waive" child support because it is for the benefit of the minor child and not for the benefit of the spouse receiving payments.
The following example may be useful: Assume that the parent with less parenting time has a gross income of $3000 per month, and the parent with more parenting time has a gross income of $1500 per month. The combined incomes of the parties is $4500 per month, of which two-thirds is from the noncustodial parent. If, under the formula, the support needs of one child are $600/month, the parent with less parenting time would be required to pay two-thirds of that amount, or $400/month.
Spousal support is money that a court orders a party to pay to a former spouse to help that spouse meet his or her needs. Spousal support is not awarded in every dissolution case. Spousal support can only be ordered in dissolution of marriage cases (not in paternity or unmarried custody cases).
An award of spousal support is not based on a "formula" as is the case with child support; rather, it is based upon what is "just and equitable under the circumstances." The amount and duration of spousal support is based on a variety of factors. Those factors include: length of the marriage (generally not awarded in short marriages unless a party has substantial health issues); ages of the parties; health of the parties; work experience and earning capacity (probably the most important factor). A court will also look at the standard of living the couple had during the marriage, how the couple deals with property division in the marriage, the parenting plan regarding children, how responsibility for debt is allocated, costs of health care, etc.
There are three kinds of spousal support: transitional, compensatory and maintenance.
Transitional support is for a party to attain education or training necessary to allow the party to prepare for reentry into the job market or for advancement in the job market. This type of support is commonly awarded in shorter or mid-length marriages where a party needs additional resources for a limited time to be come gainfully employed.
Compensatory support is for cases when there has been a significant financial or other contribution by one party to the education, training, vocational skills, career or earning capacity of the other party or where one party is given substantially more value in property during the dissolution and there are no other assets to "offset" the property award. This type of support is rarely ordered.
Maintenance support is a contribution by one spouse to the other, either for a specified or indefinite period of time. This is commonly awarded in long-term marriages where there is a significant gap between the earning capacity of the parties, a gap which will probably never be closed or where a party may lack the ability to gain meaningful employment in the future.
Spousal support awarded in a particular case can be a combination of the three kinds of support, such as a higher amount for a period of months in transitional support, and then a smaller amount in maintenance support indefinitely.
Spousal support does not automatically terminate upon remarriage of the spouse receiving the support. Either party can ask for a hearing to modify the amount or length of spousal support based on a substantial and unanticipated change in the financial circumstances of either party. Establishing an appropriate amount of spousal support is always interrelated with the division of property in a particular case. For instance, a spouse could be awarded the bulk of equity in the family residence in exchange for not receiving spousal support. Generally a court would prefer to disentangle the parties in that fashion (if it is otherwise equitable) rather than order spousal support.
The law relating to child and spousal support is very complex and has a substantial impact on the lives and resources of the parties involved. Legal representation to protect your rights is generally a good investment.
Legal editor: William M. Jones, January 2012