Actor Jon Cryer has achieved some fame as Alan on Two and a Half Men. He has also made a lot of money. Some of that money is shared with his ex-wife Sarah, in the form of child support. Here are the facts. The couple married in 2000. They had a son. They divorced in 2004. The settlement provided that Sarah would have custody of the child 65% of the time, and Jon would have the child in his care 35% of the time. Jon would pay $10,000 per month in child support to Sarah. By 2009 Sarah had hit a rocky patch in her life. Her son was taken from her by child protective services, and placed with Jon. Her only income was the child support she received from Jon. Jon, on the other hand, felt it was unfair that he would have to pay any child support to Sarah given that the child was now with him all the time.
Jon took Sarah to court to have his child support reduced. In response Sarah argued that without child support from Jon she would be destitute, and would not be able to provide a home for their son when he was in her care. The court reduced Jon's child support to $8,000 per month, and ordered him to contribute more than $60,000 toward Sarah's attorney's fees and costs. At the time of the ruling, as noted, Sarah had nominal income. Jon's income was in the range of $475,000 to $790,000 per month. The court writes:
The amount of child support normally payable is calculated based on a complicated algebraic formula found at Family Code section 4055.1 Although this formula is referred to as the statewide uniform “guideline” (§ 4055), “guideline” is a misleading term. (In re Marriage of Hubner (2001) 94 Cal.App.4th 175, 183.) The formula support amount is “presumptively correct” in all cases (see §§ 4057, subd. (a), 4053, subd. (k)), but “may be rebutted by admissible evidence showing that application of the formula would be unjust or inappropriate in the particular case, consistent with the principles set forth in Section 4053 . . . .” (§ 4055, subd. (b).)
Section 4053 sets forth a number of principles, foremost among them being the protection of the child’s best interest: “The guideline seeks to place the interests of children as the state’s top priority.” (§ 4053, subd. (e).) Among other principles, section 4053 also provides, “ (a) [a] parent’s first and principal obligation is to support his or her minor children according to the parent’s circumstances and station in life”; “(d) [e]ach parent should pay for the support of the children according to his or her ability”; and “(f) [c]hildren should share in the standard of living of both parents. Child support may therefore appropriately improve the standard of living of the custodial household to improve the lives of the children.” In light of these principles, departure from the standard child support formula may be appropriate when application of the formula “would be unjust or inappropriate due to special circumstances in the particular case” (§ 4057, subd. (b)(5)), so long as the variance is consistent with section 4053.
One critical fact that the court returned to again and again was that Jon had gained custody via the dependency proceeding initiated by child protective serves, and that one of the goals of the dependency proceeding was eventual reunification between Sarah and her son, once she got her act together. The court continues:
At the time of the initial hearing on the requested modification, Jon was paying Sarah $10,000 per month for child support. In bringing his order to show cause, Jon argued that there had been a material change in circumstances due to the dependency proceedings, which caused his time share to increase dramatically. A child support order may be modified when there has been a material change of circumstances. (In re Marriage of Williams (2007) 150 Cal.App.4th 1221, 1234.)
The trial court (at least implicitly) acknowledged there was a change in circumstances. As noted in the court’s statement of decision, Sarah’s time share had decreased from 65 percent to 4 percent.
Jon was successful in persuading the trial court to modify child support, but he takes issue with the amount of the modification. As required by section 4056, subdivision (a), the trial court’s statement of decision included the amount of support that would have been ordered under the guideline formula: $1,141 per month, payable from Jon to Sarah. This comparatively low amount was largely the result of Sarah’s then 4 percent time share. The court departed from this guideline amount, finding that it would be “unjust and inappropriate” under the special circumstances of the case to modify Jon’s obligations to such an extent, and instead ordered a reduction from $10,000 to $8,000.
We find that the trial court’s decision was well-reasoned and consistent with the principles of section 4053, especially the principle of protecting child’s best interest. Jon is correct that the modification was unusual. So far as we are able to determine, no published California case has examined the propriety of an order giving above-guideline child support to a parent with a minimal time share. In many cases, such an order would be improper. But, as noted above, this was not a typical case.
The “special circumstances” exception of section 4057, subdivision (b)(5) gives the trial court “considerable discretion to approach unique cases on an ad hoc basis.” (County of Lake v. Antoni (1993) 18 Cal.App.4th 1102, 1106; see also In re Marriage of Fini (1994) 26 Cal.App.4th 1033, 1043 [“the court, in child support cases, is not just supposed to punch numbers into a computer and award the parties the computer’s result without considering circumstances in a particular case which would make that order unjust or inequitable”].) The trial court has “broad discretion” to determine when special circumstances apply. (In re Marriage of de Guigne (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 1353, 1361.)
This was a unique case that presented special circumstances, particularly when viewed from the trial court’s perspective in late 2009. Prior to initiation of the dependency matter, child spent most of his time with Sarah. At the time of the November hearing, Sarah’s custody and visitation rights were in the control of the dependency court and DCFS, and were subject to potentially sudden change. “The parent-child relationship and its attendant duty of support do not end when a child is declared a dependent of the juvenile court and removed from the parents’ custody. [Citation.] To the contrary, the chief objective of the dependency law is the preservation or reunification of the family whenever possible.” (County of Ventura v. Gonzales (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 1120, 1122.) An order granting a large decrease of child support could have jeopardized the objective of the dependency action. Substantial evidence supported the conclusion that Sarah would have lost the house in which child had lived much of his life, and would have faced other substantial burdens that likely would have impacted her attempts at reunification. Child’s interest was best served by an order that promoted the objective of reunification, as this one did. . . .
In addition, given the posture of the dependency matter, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by finding that child’s best interest was served by a level of child support that would allow Sarah to make the payments necessary to avoid losing her family home. A “‘child’s need is measured by the parents’ current station in life’ [citations],” and “‘where the child has a wealthy parent, that child is entitled to, and therefore “needs” something more than the bare necessities of life.’ [Citation].” (In re Marriage of Cheriton (2001) 92 Cal.App.4th 269, 293(Cheriton).) There was a benefit to child in ordering this level of support, and the fact that Sarah obviously benefited did not per se invalidate the order. (See In re Marriage of Hubner (1988) 205 Cal.App.3d 660.) Depending on the status of Sarah’s visitation and custody situation, child could stay in her house, a house he was used to and which was commensurate with the high standard of living to which he was accustomed. In light of his father’s substantial income and wealth, child “needed” more than an apartment, which was Sarah’s only likely housing option if child support were decreased to guideline levels. An order that resulted in child’s spending time with his father in an opulent abode and time with his mother in a low-rent apartment would have conflicted with the principles of section 4053.
Regarding the payment by Jon of Sarah's attorney's fees the court writes:
In reviewing an attorney fee order, the record must reflect that the trial court considered the factors set forth in sections 2030 and 2032. (Alan S. v. Superior Court (2009) 172 Cal.App.4th 238, 242.) The purpose of section 2030 is to ensure parity. “The idea is that both sides should have the opportunity to retain counsel, not just (as is usually the case) only the party with greater financial strength.” (Id. at p. 251.) As for section 2032, it not only requires that the court consider the financial resources of each party, but also requires a broader analysis of the parties’ relative circumstances. (172 Cal.App.4th at p. 254.) From our review of the record, we are satisfied that the trial court analyzed these issues thoroughly. As noted by the court, the incomes of the parties were highly disparate. The case had been litigated very heavily, and numerous orders to show cause and motions were filed in the relatively short time period since modification was first requested. Jon expended a great deal of money on attorney fees and costs. Without sizable fee awards, Jon likely would have litigated Sarah out of the case, a result contrary to the objectives of sections 2030 and 2032. Based on the circumstances, the fee awards ordered by the court were reasonable.
Essentially the court said that Jon could afford the child support, and that his son's mother needed it to provide a modest, appropriate environment (e.g., a roof over his head) for the child during the small percentage of the time that he was in her care. The court also wrote that Jon had plenty of extra money to contribute to Sarah's attorney's fees, and that she needed that money so that her lawyers could keep up with Jon's in the case.
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1 Unless otherwise noted, all statutory references are to the Family Code.