Zheng v. Xia, 204 Conn. App. 302 (2021) (child support guidelines & deviation; disparity in income; supplemental lump sum award)
Officially released May 4, 2021
In Short: This is a Maturo/Misthopoulos lineage child support case. Disparity in parental income alone cannot support a deviation where the non-custodial parent has the higher income. The party seeking an upward deviation should always present evidence supporting the specific financial needs for supporting the child, rather than relying on a solely income-based argument.
The parties were married in 2010 and had one child. In 2012 Husband filed for divorce. At the time, Husband was a hedge fund analyst and Wife was a law student. They were divorced in 2013 by separation agreement. The child resided primarily with Wife. Husband paid unallocated alimony and child support in the amount of $1,600 per month until August of 2014. In May of 2015, the trial court ordered Husband to pay child support of $161 per week. The parties thereafter filed numerous motions for contempt and modification. This appeal stems from a modification filed in early 2020.
In January 2020, Wife filed a post-judgment motion to modify child support. She represented that Husband was a partner in a hedge fund receiving annual income including base salary, end of year bonuses, and partnership distributions. She further represented that in June 2017, Husband had been ordered to pay child support of $273 per week, and lump sum supplemental child support of $10,868, which was 12.97% of his net bonus. Wife claimed that, as of January 2020, there had been a substantial change in circumstances because Husband’s annual base salary increased from $200,000 to $250,000 and his 2019 bonus income was $466,418. Wife sought an upward modification, that the basic support obligation be based on his new gross salary and that Husband pay supplemental lump sum child support based on his 2019 bonus. Wife represented that she was not employed and had no other income source. Wife’s immigration status presented employability problems.
The trial court held an evidentiary hearing and granted Wife’s motion based on a substantial change in circumstances. The trial court found Husband’s income for 2019 to be gross $666,000 and that presumptive support would be $416 per week. The trial court made the finding that application of the guidelines would be inequitable based on coordination of total family support and significant disparity in the parties’ income. Husband was ordered to pay $416 per week. Husband was further ordered to pay 13% of his net bonus to Wife as additional child support annually, beginning with $30,115 as 13% of his 2019 bonus.
Husband appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly (1) ordered him to pay 13% of his net 2019 bonus and future bonus as supplemental child support, (2) abused its discretion by deviating from the child support guidelines, and (3) failed to consider his qualified child when calculating his supplemental child support obligation (the appellate court declined to consider this last argument as it reversed and determined that this was unlikely to arise again upon remand). Husband did not challenge the finding of a substantial change in circumstances, the $416 per week order, or the fact of a supplemental order, the core of his challenge was the percentage of the supplemental order.
The Appellate Court reviewed the order under the abuse of discretion standard. The Appellate Court reviewed the statutory scheme regarding child support and guidelines in detail, including the rebuttable presumption as to the awards that result from application of the guidelines, the requirement of a specific finding on the record as to the inequitable or inappropriate application of the guidelines in order to deviate, and the income shares model nature of the guidelines.
The Appellate Court found that the trial court abused its discretion by deviating from the guidelines and therefore concluded that the order of 13% of annual bonus as supplemental child support was improper. The trial court “made no specific finding as to why the child support guidelines were inequitable or inappropriate, save for alluding to the significant disparity between the parties’ incomes.” The disparity in incomes basis for deviation is only applicable where “the custodial parent has the higher income and deviation from the presumptive support amount would enhance the lower income parent’s ability to foster a relationship with the child.” Maturo v. Maturo, 296 Conn. 80, 101 (2010).
The Judgment was reversed only as to the lump sum supplemental child support order and remanded for further proceedings; it was affirmed in all other respects.