Child support lawyer at desk

Understanding Income Caps in New York Child Support

All states are required, under federal law, to use mathematical formulas as guidelines for determining the amount of child support payments. However, states have some discretion in setting their own guidelines. In New York State, the amount of child support payments is determined by first calculating the combined adjusted gross income of the parents.

Effective March 1, 2022, the income cap for child support calculations increased from $154,000 to $163,000. The income cap for spousal support went up to $203,000 from $192,000. The law gives judges the flexibility to make adjustments for higher earners, but also automatically increaes the amount of the cap to tke account inflation .

This article is intended to provide general information only, not actual legal advice, for which you need to have a full consultation with an experienced child support attorney.  Every situation is different. 

This article does not discuss income caps for people whose income is below the poverty level or who are receiving full public assistance benefits from the government. 

How Child Support Is Calculated in New York

parents and child under scales of justice

Adjusted gross income includes almost all income from any source minus social security taxes, Medicare taxes, and city taxes. The combined adjusted gross income or “AGI” is then multiplied by a percentage which is based upon the number of children. In New York, the percentage for one child is 17%, while the percentage for two children is 25%.

After applying the percentage to the AGI of each parent, the total AGI is allocated or divided between the parents, in proportion to their percentages of respective AGI’s. Although the amount of child support is “allocated”, in practice the way that it works is that the non-custodial parent ends up with a child support obligation based upon the amount that is allocated to him (or in rare cases to her). The custodial parent actually pays no money for child support.

Because we are dealing with a mathematical formula,  an online child support calculator (readily available on the net)  can do all  the child support calculations for you, and can quickly provide at least a rough idea of the likely  amount the child support order, at least when the total AGI is below the cap. 

It is important to understand that this formula is based upon income, and expenses of either the parents or of the child or children are disregarded in most cases. This is different from other states, in particular New Jersey, where expenses such as housing, food,  child care, and education expenses,  whether maintenance is being paid, and many other factors, including the amount of time the child or children spends with each parent, are taken into account.

Interestingly, In New York, property owned is almost never taken into account unless the total adjusted gross income is above the cap. 

The Child Support Standards Act And The Cassano Income Cap

The New York statute, called the Child Support Standards Act or “CSSA’, has an ” income cap” which is adjusted each year for inflation based upon the consumer price index.  As of the date of this post, the cap is $163,000.

However, the term “cap” is somewhat deceptive. In fact, NYC child support courts, pursuant to the case of Cassano v. Cassano, will sometimes limit child support payments to the calculated amount of income only up to the “cap”, will sometimes completely disregard the cap and apply the formula to the total amount of combined AGI, and will sometimes apply the guidelines formula (i.e. 17%, 25%, etc) to an amount above the cap but less than the total AGI.  Courts have a great deal of discretion in deciding if and how the cap will be applied, making it difficult to predict the likely outcome.

The Cassano case itself  is somewhat difficult to understand, even for lawyers. To understand the case, it is necessary to understand its context, as well as the context of how the CSSA came to be instituted.

 Before the CSSA, every child support case was decided on its own merits by the judge based upon its own unique facts. This took up a lot of time for the courts, and also resulted in situations where families with the same financial circumstances ended up with wildly different child support payments being ordered. In deciding cases prior to the CSSA the needs of the child or children was a major, if not the major, factor in coming up with child support orders.

When Cassano was decided, the statutory “cap” was not yet being adjusted for increases in the cost of living. When I first read the decision, I thought that the court was setting up a presumption that the formula would be applied to the total combined AGI, so that it was the burden of the non- custodial parent to prove that it would be unjust and inequitable to make him or her pay that much.

After re-reading Cassano, and reading a large number of subsequent cases in the appellate courts, I have concluded that there is no presumption, but instead, the trial court must simply determine whether or not to go over the cap, and if so, by how much, based upon the factors which are listed in the Cassano decision.

The Cassano Factors

When the combined AGI is in excess of the statutory “cap”, courts are required, under Cassano, to use any or all of ten factors in deciding whether to go over the cap, and if so, by how much. These factors include such items as the income tax consequences of child support orders, age and health of the parents, the total financial resources of each parent, the amount of any disparity of incomes between the parties, to name a few.

The tenth factor is a “catch all” factor which allows the court to consider any factor that either party believes is relevant. Obviously, not all of the factors will be relevant to the facts of any particular case. Experienced child support lawyers will focus on the factor or factors which are most relevant.

Notably, the financial needs of the subject child or children is not listed as a factor. However, the cases after Cassano still recognize that the needs of the children remain an important, and oftentimes a very important, factor in their decisions. The needs of the subject child is often considered under the “catch all” factor.

Reported Decisions In NY Courts Using Cassano Factors

Because Cassano set 10 separate factors, including a “catch all” factor,in cases involving child support cases where total AGI is over the statutory cap, New York Courts have very wide discretion in coming up with amounts of child support orders. My own reading of reported cases, focusing on appellate decisions, reveals the following patterns:

  • Lower court orders are usually upheld in the appellate courts.
  • Most situations where lower court orders are reversed on appeal involve situations where the lower court failed to discuss the Cassano factors. These have resulted in reversals where lower courts either refused to go over the cap or went over the cap without explanation.
  • Most of the time, when the appellate court reversed the lower court for failing to discuss or consider the Cassano factors, the appellate court sent the case back to the trial court for a do over.
  • Some cases were reversed where the trial court cited some of the factors but failed to explain why and how these factors applied to the case. The appellate court usually sends the case back to the trial court for a do over.
  • In a lesser number of cases, the case was reversed because even though the trial court considered the Cassano factors and explained their reasoning, the appellate court felt that the amount of the order was unjust or inappropriate. In these cases, the appellate court often made its own orders.
  • The appellate courts are more likely to reverse the trial court when the combined AGI is substantially higher than the amount of the cap.
  • In the appellate cases that I have read the needs of the child and a large disparity of income between the parties were cited as important factors.
  • Almost all appellate cases that I have read involve children of a marriage. This is probably because, in general, incomes of married couples are higher than incomes of unmarried couples, and appeals are very expensive.

Because courts have such wide discretion in determining whether or not to go over the Cassano cap, and because there are so many factors potentially in play, it is extremely difficult to predict, even generally, what a court is likely to decide in a given case. This makes these cases hard to settle, but they can be expensive to try. That is why litigants , whether they are mothers or fathers, should seek out experienced child support attorneys .