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Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Judicial Administration establishes guidelines for the ordering of child support awards. The guidelines are supposed to provide an adequate standard of support for children, subject to the ability of their parents to pay, and is supposed to make awards more equitable by ensuring more consistent treatment of persons in similar circumstances.

The guidelines are based on the income shares model developed by the National Center for State Courts and are founded on the premise that children should not be penalized as a result of the dissolution of the family unit but should continue to receive the same level of support that would have been available to them had the family unit remained intact. Under the guidelines, each parent is required to submit a Child Support Guidelines form and Child Support Obligation Income Statement/Affidavit form in each action to establish or modify child support. The Child Support Guidelines form sets forth the combined income available to the family unit, the basic child support obligation as determined from the Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations (Appendix to Rule 32), and adjustments to the basic obligation for work-related child care expenses and health insurance premiums. A portion of the adjusted total child support obligation is then ascribed to each parent based on his/her percentage share of the combined family income. The Child Support Guidelines form sets forth the recommended child support obligation for the noncustodial parent, which includes an adjustment for the cost of the health insurance premium if such a premium is paid by the noncustodial parent. The guidelines assume that the custodial parent will directly provide his/her proportionate share of support to the children. In addition to the recommended child support obligation, the court may make additional awards for extraordinary medical, dental, and educational expenses if the court finds such awards to be in the children's best interest or if the parents have agreed to such awards. The Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations was developed through research sponsored by the National Center for State Courts and is based on extensive economic research on the cost of supporting children at various income levels. This schedule is based on gross income and has been adjusted for Alabama's income distribution relative to the U.S. income distribution.

The Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations assumes:

(1) Tax Exemptions. The Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations assumes that the custodial parent will take the federal and state income tax exemptions for the children in his or her custody;

(2) Health Care Costs. In respect to health care costs, the Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations assumes unreimbursed medical costs of $200 per family of four per year. These assumed costs include medical expenses not covered or reimbursed by health insurance or Medicaid or Medicare; and

(3) Visitation. The Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations is premised on the assumption that the noncustodial parent will exercise customary visitation rights, including summer visitation. Any abatement of child support because of extraordinary visitation should be based on visitation in excess of customary visitation.

The schedule of basic child support obligations includes combined gross incomes ranging from $550 to $10,000 a month. Rule 32(C)(1) provides that the court may use its discretion in determining child support where the combined adjusted gross income is below the lowermost levels or above the uppermost levels of the schedule. To further the consistency of awards, a court may wish to issue an order establishing minimum child support obligations for combined adjusted gross incomes of less than $550. Where the combined adjusted gross income exceeds the uppermost limit of the schedule, the amount of child support should not be extrapolated from the figures given in the schedule, but should be left to the discretion of the court.

Rule 32(B)(8) provides an adjustment for work-related child care costs, provided such costs do not exceed those on the schedule of guidelines for licensed child care costs published by the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR). The rule requires that copies of the DHR schedule of guidelines for child care costs be available through the office of the clerk or register of each court where child support actions are filed. Copies of the schedule of guidelines for child care costs should also be available in the county offices of the Department of Human Resources.

The Alabama child support guidelines do not specifically address the problem of establishing a support order in joint legal custody situations. Such a situation may be considered by the court as a reason for deviating from the guidelines in appropriate situations, particularly if physical custody is jointly shared by the parents. Shared physical custody, regardless of "legal custodial arrangements," is an appropriate reason for deviation, Section (A)(1)(a). "Shared physical custody" refers to that situation where the physical placement is shared by the parents in such a manner as to assure the child frequent and continuing contact and time with both parents. Because of the infinite possibilities that exist in terms of time spent with each parent and other considerations associated with such custody, a determination of support is to be made on a case-by-case basis and is left to the sound discretion of the trial court, to be based on findings made at or after trial or upon a fair written agreement of the parties. When a shared physical custody situation results in a support award that deviates from the award that would result from application of the guidelines, the trial court's order, or the written agreement of the parties, must specify and explain the reason for the deviation.

The guidelines also do not address the problem of subsequent children or families. While no deduction may be made for children born or adopted after an initial award of support, unless made pursuant to another order of support or as otherwise provided in this rule, a court may consider evidence of support provided by a party for after-born or adopted children offered in an attempt to rebut the guidelines' presumptions. See Loggins v. Houk, 595 So.2d 488 (Ala.Civ.App.1991).

The Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations assumes that a family of four will have approximately $200 in unreimbursed medical expenses each year. In providing for the payment of deductibles and/or other noncovered medical expenses by the parties, it should be assumed that those expenses are in excess of this amount. Courts and parties may wish to consider whether noncovered medical and/or dental expenses should be allocated in the same percentages as the health insurance premiums are allocated pursuant to this rule and as entered on the Child Support Guidelines form (Form CS-42).

When provisions for payment of a health insurance premium are made as provided in Rule 32, the court, or the parties drafting an agreement, should also consider requiring proof that the children have been enrolled in the health insurance plan and proof of the actual cost of dependent coverage. The court should, in its order of child support, require the parent providing dependent insurance coverage to submit annually proof of continued coverage to the other parent, the court, or the designated child support enforcement agency, and should further require provision of an identification card or other evidence of insurance sufficient for the children to be afforded benefits of such insurance coverage by service providers.

The Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Child Support Guidelines and Enforcement, which assisted in drafting this rule, has recommended that child support obligations be determined before the court considers spousal support or other obligations.

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