As previous posts here have discussed, how much income each parent brings in has a lot of bearing on how much child support a Massachusetts court will order each parent to pay. However, a parent might wonder what they can do if the other parent seems to be able to pay more child support, yet on paper it appears that they make relatively little money and thus should, under the applicable guidelines, not pay a lot of child support. It is an unfortunate fact, after all, that some parents play legal tricks in order to unfairly lower their child support payments, even though this ultimately hurts their own children.
Unlike other states, Massachusetts law makes a distinction between “imputation” of income and “attribution” of income. However, both “attribution” and “imputation” are means by which a court can ensure both the parents and the children are treated fairly and no one games the child support system.
A court might impute income to a parent when, although documentation is not available, it is apparent that a parent is getting money from some unknown source. A court can consider the parent’s pattern of spending and overall lifestyle when deciding whether and to what extent to impute income. For example, a parent who on paper makes a modest living, but who is driving a nice car and residing in a nice neighborhood, is probably getting additional financial help from somewhere, and a court can adjust child support accordingly.
On the other hand, a court can attribute income to a parent if the parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed. When making this decision, the court will evaluate the parent’s earning potential and may also consider why exactly that parent is not living up to that potential. For example, a doctor who has chosen to change careers and be a high school teacher may be compelled to pay child support based on what he or she could earn, not what he or she is earning.