Recent Arizona Appeals Court Ruling Clarifies Child Support Guideline Deviations
On June 15, 2017, the Arizona Court of Appeals (Division One) delivered its decision in Nia v. Nia (Nia v. Nia – 1 CA-CV 16-0380 FC). The Nia decision affirmed the decision of Judge Stephen Hopkins and serves to clarify various aspects of Arizona law regarding modification of child support including the legal consequence of a previously ordered deviation from the child support guidelines.
The underlying facts were largely undisputed. The parties are the parents of triplets and were divorced in 2009 by consent decree which provided that father’s child support would be in the amount of $3,830.00 per month – an upward deviation from the amount indicated by the child support guideline worksheet.
In 2012, the parties stipulated to reduce father’s child support obligation to $3,500.00 – again an upward deviation since the child support calculation indicated that $1,100 was due. At the time of the deviation, father’s income was in excess of $50,000 per month while mother earned approximately $15,000 per month.
Petition to Modify
On June 10, 2015, father filed a Petition to Modify Child Support seeking to reduce his obligation to $406.94 per month as per the Child Support Guidelines. Father premised his 2015 petition on a substantial and continuing change of circumstances.
Trial Court Decision on Support Modification
At trial, the court found that father’s income had reduced to $32,783 per month (a decrease of almost 40%) while mother’s income had increased to $22,489 (an increase of 60%). As a result, the court concluded that father had shown a substantial and continuing change in circumstances which warranted a review of the child support order. The trial court ordered father to pay the sum of $623.84 in accordance with the Child Support Guidelines.
Mother appealed several issues arguing that the trial court has erred in:
- Finding that substantial and continuing changed circumstances existed which justified modification of the 2012 Order;
- Failing to consider the previously agreed - and ordered - deviations from the Child Support Guidelines; and
- Determining that mother bore the burden to prove that an upward deviation is in the best interest of the children.
The Arizona Court of Appeals (Division One) decided as follows:
- § Substantial and Continuing Changed Circumstances. On appeal, mother argued that the changed circumstances were not substantial because father remained above the $20,000 Child Support Guideline threshold. After confirming that the court retains ‘the sound discretion’ to determine the existence of changed circumstances, the court evaluated the decrease in father’s income and the increase in mother’s income and concluded that the reduction of the income gap between the parents confirmed the trial court’s finding of substantial and continuing change. The Arizona Court of Appeals found that the trial court had properly considered the ‘nature of the changes and the reasons for the changes’.
- § Previously Agreed Deviation. On appeal, mother argued that a presumption exists in favor of a deviation if there has previously been a deviation. This argument was soundly rejected by the Court – the correct process is as follows: When the court determines that a significant and continuing change has occurred from a previous child support order, a review of the child support order is warranted and there is no presumption regarding a deviation.
- § Burden to Prove that a Deviation is Warranted. On appeal, mother argued that father bore the burden of proof because he filed the Petition for Modification. The court disagreed and confirmed that a party seeking a deviation from the Child Support Guidelines bears the burden of proof – and this is not impacted by previously ordered deviations or which party filed the underlying pleading. The party seeking a deviation always bears the burden of proving that a deviation is appropriate under the current circumstances of the case.
The Nia decision clarifies the absence of any impact of previous deviations – current child support is determined by current facts – and once substantial and continuing change has been established, the party seeking a deviation will have to meet the burden of proof to establish that a higher amount (of child support) is in the best interests of the children (Guidelines § 8).
The Arizona Court of Appeals did not undertake any mathematical evaluation of the parties’ changed incomes. However their ruling concludes that an income reduction approaching 40% suffices to constitute substantial change.