New Illinois Ruling Muddies Waters of Child Support Modification

IRMO Salvatore Muddies Child Support Modification Waters

Up until Salvatore, a formerly unemployed spouse obtaining a full-time job was almost a guaranteed “substantial change in circumstances” that would warrant a modification of child support in court.  The Salvatore decision complicates this analysis by placing a greater focus on what was initially contemplated at the time the prior child support order was entered.

Pertinent Facts: Three kids were born to the parties. The original Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA”) provided Husband would pay 32% of his net income for child support under old child support statute (amended July 1, 2017).  Wife was unemployed at the time of entry of Judgment. Although the parties referenced the possibility of Wife obtaining future employment elsewhere in the MSA, it did not reference that possibility in the “Child Support” section itself. Specifically, the Joint Parenting Agreement said the parties would keep each other apprised of places of employment.  Further, the health insurance provision of the MSA referenced health insurance coverage “if neither party had employer-provided insurance.”  Husband filed a Petition to Modify Child Support alleging his reduction in income constituted a substantial change in circumstances (this argument was later abandoned in the appeal). The Petition also noted wife had obtained new employment with an income of $45,000/year, but originally didn’t list this as a “substantial change in circumstances.”  Husband was later granted leave to amend his Petition to conform with the proofs.

However, the Court ultimately found Wife’s income was not an appropriate basis for lowering the child support obligation as it was not factored into the original calculation in the MSA.  The court agreed with Wife that, because her income was not factored into calculating Husband’s child support obligation, “the only logical conclusion was that the basis for modification [request] is the new act itself.”  Under 750 ILCS 5/510, enactment of the act itself is not a basis for modification.  The parties already contemplated that Wife could be employed in the future when they entered their support obligation, despite that it was only a possibility, not a certainty.  The Court reasoned that a party’s increased income does not constitute a substantial change in circumstances when the increase was contemplated and expected when the MSA was entered.

Another important note to consider is that the Court noted that Wife’s income was so small compared to Husband’s that even if considered, it would not be a substantial change to warrant a modification of support.

Standard of Review: A trial court’s ruling on a petition for a modification of child support is typically reviewed for an abuse of discretion, meaning it will not be disturbed unless deemed arbitrary, fanciful, or unreasonable.  In re Marriage of Fisher, 2018 IL App (2d) 170384.  However, when the issue concerns the legal effect of undisputed facts and interpretation of an MSA, we apply the de novo standard of review.

Holding: Affirmed on appeal. Court properly denied Husband’s Petition to Modify Child Support. There was no evidence presented that when child support was set, it was contemplated that Wife would remain unemployed while receiving support.  When the parties entered their MSA, they did not intend for Wife gaining employment to trigger a downward modification in child support. Wife’s income was irrelevant to determination of Husband’s child support obligation.  Wife’s income does not become relevant just because the statute changed in July of 2017.  Court properly refused to consider a change in Wife’s income when considering if a substantial change in circumstances had occurred.

Takeaway: Be careful when drafting any order regarding child support, whether it is an initial Marital Settlement Agreement or subsequent child support order.  If one party is unemployed, consider explicitly providing if a change in employment status would constitute a substantial change in circumstances for modification purposes.

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