Understanding Variable Costs and Wisconsin Child Support
In Wisconsin, a support order for a child’s essential needs is meant to pay for food, shelter, clothing, transportation, personal care, and incidental recreational expenses. As many parents can tell you, the amount ordered for basic child support rarely covers all of a child’s expenses. In reality, raising kids often involves paying several costs beyond the basic requirements. Expenses for necessities such as child care and private school tuition can take a significant toll on a parent’s budget. Wisconsin law provides that, in some situations, the court can factor in a child's added or "variable" costs when developing a support order. Here is more on understanding variable costs and Wisconsin child support.
Variable Costs in WI
In Wisconsin, the court examines multiple factors to determine the appropriate amount for child support and how it should be allocated. In addition to essential support, in some situations, Wisconsin courts can also examine a child's additional or "variable costs."
Wisconsin law defines “variable costs” as “the reasonable costs above basic support costs incurred by or on behalf of a child, including but not limited to, the cost of child care, tuition, a child’s special needs, and other activities that involve substantial cost.”
The court will order that parents pay variable costs when there is a shared placement. Shared placement means that both parents have placement time with their child at least 25% of the time. Under this type of placement, support is based on both parents’ incomes and is reduced by the amount of placement time each parent has with the child. Shared placement parents also share variable costs according to how much time they have with their kids. For instance, if one parent has their child 40% of the time, they will pay 40% of the child’s variable costs.
Variable costs can include expenses such as a child’s extracurricular activities, school-related fees and tuition, private tutoring, test preparation classes, and child care. The court’s order will state how parents are to make variable cost payments. Often, parents are left to make these payments between themselves. However, the order can require parents to make payments directly to a third-party provider.
There can be issues when parents are left to reconcile payments on their own. In practicality, one parent may end up paying for 100% of an expense and then seek reimbursement from the other. If the other parent drags their feet on paying their proportionate share, the paying parent will be in a less favorable position. In some cases, one parent may refuse to pay because they don't agree with the expense or think that they should be obligated. When this situation arises, the paying parent can ask the court to hold the other parent in contempt and enforce reimbursement or payment.
Avoiding Conflict Over Variable Expenses
It's not uncommon for parents to fight over variable expenses, especially if the support order is non-specific. Parents can help avoid these conflicts by ensuring that the order includes details such as what variable costs will cover, how they will reimburse one another, and when they will make payments. Another way to clarify expectations and obligations is by requiring each parent to consult with and obtain consent from the other before incurring a variable cost above a specific dollar amount. Parents can also establish a schedule to exchange receipts for expenses.
When parents communicate about their child's variable costs beforehand, they can prevent problems later on. For instance, letting the other parent know you intend to pay for summer camp or a math tutoring program before making the expenditure can help reduce future conflict. Additionally, maintaining an open dialogue regarding variable expenses shows mutual respect and can help foster a more cooperative and collaborative parenting dynamic.
Attorney and Mediator Karyn Youso of First Look Family Law has extensive experience helping clients understand their options regarding Wisconsin child support and can help you evaluate your circumstances.