2009 Changes in Alabama Child Support

New child support guidelines took effect in Alabama on January 1, 2009. They apply by their terms to “all new actions filed or proceedings instituted on or after January 1, 2009.” This is widely taken to mean that these new guidelines do not apply to cases for which the original complaint was filed before January 1, 2009. This is, as my Daddy would have said, “kinda right.”

The new guidelines are different from those in effect for prior years in several ways: First, they cover a broader range of incomes. The old guidelines extended to annual incomes as low as $6,600 and as high as $120,000. Below and above that range, child support was in the discretion of the court. The new guidelines extend to annual incomes as low as zero and as high as $240,000. Above that range, as before, child support is in the court’s discretion.

Here is a graph showing the basic child support amount for different family sizes. As I will throughout, I use a bolder line for the more common family sizes of 1, 2, and 3 children and a thinner line for the less common family sizes of 4, 5, and 6 children. I have absolutely no explanation for the “plateauing” effect for incomes of $160,000-$200,000. I can only tell you that it applies to all family sizes. It also appears that the basic child support amounts increase in an unremarkable fashion once they exceed the $120,000 threshold from the pre-2009 guidelines.

Next, let’s look at the difference between the guidelines. For obvious reasons, there is and can be no comparison for incomes above $120,000, so this next chart stops at $120,000. Ah, now it gets interesting. This chart shows that in the range of incomes that matters to most Alabamians, from $20,000 to $60,000 (Alabama’s median household income is $40,500), the new guidelines are more generous to custodial parents and less generous to non-custodial parents regardless of family size. It also shows that the new guidelines call for more child support for all families involving only one child, regardless of income.

Because I always like to understand percentage changes as well as changes in raw numbers, I’ve included a chart below showing the changes in basic child support expressed in percentage terms rather than in dollar terms. I’m frankly not sure it adds much to one’s understanding other than to answer the question of people like me who like to see the percentage change.

Aside from the numbers, there are some other changes worth noting. For example, the 2009 guidelines introduce a requirement that a person wishing to change child support must plead and prove that a substantial and continuing material change in circumstances has occurred since the last order of child support. Pre-2009, the clear test was whether child support would change by 10% or more. Now the court has discretion to modify for less than a 10% change and to decline to modify even when the child support would change by more than 10%.

The new guidelines also build in a more specific plan for review of the guidelines once every four years, presumably designed to avoid the recent lengthy delay in reviewing them.