My Child Support Case Begins (Part 3)
My Child Support Court case was preceded by my initial divorce. You can read about it if you haven't already.
I returned to the Family Courts (aka., divorce court, child support court, child custody court...) about four years after my
divorce was final.
In my original Marital Settlement Agreement, Mr. Ex was ordered to pay $500/month child support based on the fact that he sat on unemployment during our initial divorce proceedings.
Now four years later, based on hearing from friends in the film industry that he was back to work, I asked him to see his taxes so that we could make sure his child support payments reflected his new level of income.
He ignored these requests, so mid-September of 2013, I returned to child support court without a lawyer - aka., Pro Se.
How I Tripled My Child Support Payments, Including All My Divorce Papers and Court Documents.
I went to the county family courts where our divorce had been handled, filled out a general motion form requesting to see Mr. X's income tax returns and set a court date to see the Judge.
I gave notice* to Mr. X via email and text, ideally it should have been sent via certified mail. However, at that time I didn't have Mr. X's address (he ignored my requests for his address).
Note: It's very important to ask for what you want. I cannot stress that enough. In the final judgment, retroactive child support went back to the date of the document where I asked for a modification of support, October 9, 2013. Had I asked for the modification in my September filing, the retroactive support would have gone back that extra month.
Additionally, I did not ask for contribution to extracurricular activities until June of 2014; therefore, I wasn't able to get any contribution for those prior to that date. The Judge did enable me to get an education contribution back to October of 2013.
The court date was scheduled for October 9, 2013.
On October 8th, I received a text from Mr. Ex stating, "Was thinking 'bout everything. Can't get to court on the day you requested, however I am willing to adjust the support based on my current amount."
On October 9, 2013, I appeared in child support court and let the Judge know that Mr. Ex couldn't attend.
Another court date was set for November 1, 2013.
With the court's assistance, I changed my motion. Instead of asking to simply see Mr. X's tax returns, I asked to MODIFY CHILD SUPPORT.
In this second motion, I used the word "amend." The correct term is "modify."
The thing I did right was asking directly for what I wanted...
More child support.
Child Support Modification
This time my motion read as follows:
"I would like to petition the court to amend Mr. Ex's child support payments of $500/month. That support amount is based on unemployment from five years ago. I'd also like to request a copy of an active life insurance policy, per our agreement."
Seeing his tax returns was only a step to the goal of modifying child support.
November 1, 2013: Back to child support court.
I returned to court, fully expecting to see Mr. Ex there ready to show his tax returns or do battle, whichever way his mood had swung.
But once again, he did not show.
The Judge asked if I served Mr. Ex.
"Yes, via email," I responded.
The judge mentioned that he could find Mr. Ex in contempt of court and issue a warrant for his arrest. "But that won't help anyone," he reasoned.
At that point, the Judge heard my testimony on Mr. Ex's income during our marriage and our son's needs.
With that he entered...
A needs-based child support order for $3202 a month.
You read that right.
The support order jumped from $500 a month to $3202. Amazing!
The actual order read,
This is a needs based order. Mr. Ex has failed to produce 2011 and 2012 tax returns and failed to appear in Court today, for the second time, as was required by the court order entered on 10/9/13. Ms. Beck's sworn testimony was relied on today.
A status date was set for January 2014.
Again, I emailed all the documentation to Mr. Ex and texted notice.
I also sent the order to the state child support disbursement unit.
By mid-December/early January of 2014, child support payments of $500-$1500 at a time, were being withheld from Mr. Ex's paycheck.
In the meantime, my friends in film continued to send me call sheets when they worked with Mr. Ex.
Mr. Ex worked in film production and had other sources of income, to get further information start with Welcome to Divorce Court.
With the November child support order, I combed over all the call sheets because I knew Mr. X was going to hit back hard.
This was the very thing that lead me to the keystone of my entire child support modification case - the whole reason for the two plus year battle – the clue that lead to Mr. Ex's hidden income: Mr. Ex's name in two places on a call sheet.
Mr. Ex was listed as the crew person (no surprise, that's his job) AND contact for the equipment vendor.
Wait a minute!
While we were married, Mr. Ex had several sources of income. Two of those sources were film.
The first was his job as a film crew person. The second source was from renting the film equipment that he owned to whatever production job he was working.
During our divorce I devolved into a helpless ass-wipe, which caused me to somehow totally forget his equipment rental business.
But now seeing his name listed as vendor contact woke me up.
It could only mean one thing: he was making more than the $30k from which the child support was factored.
More Income = Modification UP.
The beginning of my child support modification case hinged on a call sheet, a little film industry explanation is needed here.
What's a Call Sheet
A call sheet contains all contact information for the crew, cast members and the equipment vendors. It enables producers to have a simple way of finding people and getting answers. The crew people are listed AND the vendors, along with the all vendor contact persons, on one long sheet.
For example: A commercial has a cameraman (the person running the camera) and the camera equipment (coming from a rental shop). The cameraman is listed by name. The camera rental vendor contact would usually be another name. Unless the cameraman ALSO owns the camera that production company is renting.
Usually vendor contact people are owners of the rental gear or employees of the equipment shop. You only see the same person listed as crew AND vendor IF that person OWNS the equipment production is renting. Otherwise, there would be a separate person listed as the vendor contact, not one of the crew people.
Mr. Ex's name listed as the vendor contact revealed his rental business. That or it pointed to a second job.
He either owned that rental company or worked for them - this was income that was not included in child support.
Current child support was based ONLY on his personal crew labor unemployment and income. It didn't include his rental business income.
Another explanation is necessary.
Crew labor gets paid through payroll with taxes withheld, just like most employees.
Vendor checks are NOT paid through payroll. They're paid like bills.
Just like you and I would write a check for whatever bill we owe, production pays vendors directly without withholding any tax.
That's how it worked while we were married.
Mr. Ex would get two checks on each job: one check for his labor as a crew person (through payroll) and another check for the rent on his equipment (not issued through payroll, but rather issued from the production company, free of any withholding).
The only suspicious thing, well besides the obvious, was that Mr. Ex's company during our marriage was called Mr. Ex Rentals.
But here, this new company was called ABC Gear.
He had changed the name of his company.
Why? Maybe to make sure that I wouldn't find out about it.
This whole thing was just luck on my part.
I was lucky that I'd gotten this particular call sheet.
And I was lucky that I obsessed over it enough to read every line.
All this raised a question: How do I turn this information into more child support?
This latest call sheet pointed towards Mr. Ex's renewed rental income.
Rental income would easily double his take-home pay.
In fact, it could even triple it.
That would be a windfall uptick for child support.
For example, he'd make $700 a day for his labor. Then his rental income would be another $600-1200.
At the very least, I knew it would move the needle above the previous $500 a month, and possibly keep some of the gain towards the $3202. But only if...
I could prove it.
Mr. Ex missed his window of opportunity and didn't assess me as an opponent. I stumbled on what I will call moving forwards "The Keystone Job," a.k.a., evidence of Mr. Ex's concealed income, somewhere after our November court date.
And so prior to this, had Mr. Ex thought about me, he would have realized that I didn't hire an attorney because money was tight.
He would have considered that I work and care for our son, with him only visiting once a year.
Therefore, I'm short on all the resources necessary to put up a legal fight: time, money, and energy.
He could have thought, "Let's see if I just show up with my tax returns. They only show my payroll income, so about half of my true income. Maybe Rachel will be so happy to get a couple hundred a month more, that she'll just go away."
Had he thought that, it would've been game over.
I'd have been happy to get a 50% bump in support – from $500 to $764 (based on his labor income only).
I would have moved on, back to my work and our son.
But he didn't think that way.
Divorce Checklist Lessons:
- List out the expenses that your child will have all the way through college. Then decide on what percentage of each expense each party will bear. Most importantly, get that in writing in your Marital Settlement Agreement. Include everything from school to sports to birthday parties.
- Get everything specified in writing including any special needs or medical issues. If you don't specify them you may have another battle on your hands - one spouse doesn't think the child has autism or whatever other special needs.
- I filed a motion when I really needed to file a petition with written arguments and support. A motion cannot start a case, only a petition can. A motion is used once a case has begun. So technically, by filing a motion, I didn't really start my case. If I'd had a Judge who was strictly into procedure, she/he could have thrown my initial filings out of court.
- In most states, if not all, in order to file a Petition for Child Support Modification, there must be a significant change in circumstances. For us, our son was not enrolled in school at the time of the original order. This became one of the central 'changes in circumstances.'
- 'Significant change in circumstances' means different things in different states. For example: in Florida, the income change guideline is enough to trigger a modification if the new support amount will be an increase of 15% or $50, whichever is greater. Not a high bar. So, check your state guidelines.
- Ask for exactly what you want in clear terms. I've said this before, but it screams to be repeated. Had I asked for Mr. X to contribute 50% to extracurricular in my original, but flimsy, Pro Se filing, Mr. X would have been ordered to pay that going back to that filing date (October 2013). Since I didn't ask for it then, he was ordered to pay it retroactively going back to when I finally asked for it (Karl's proper filed petition in mid-2014). This cost me about $5,000 in his share of things.
- Going to court to modify child support can go both ways; support can be modified up or down. That's why I asked for copies of his tax returns initially. However, one can assume (as I did) that the other parent will initiate a downward modification if money is tight. And, if they're not compliant with showing their returns, one can also assume it's because their income may have gone up.
- The court doesn't send notice to the state disbursement unit. You (or your attorney) must do that once the order has been entered.
- Bring copies of service to the other party to court with you. In fact, create a large organized binder that you bring with you to court EACH TIME. Any time you send an email or text, print a copy of it and put it in your binder. I use a chrome app that let's me see in my Gmail when an email I've sent has been opened (mailtrack). It's free. You can print up proof that an email has been opened bring it to court. Even if you have an attorney, it's good to do this because sometimes attorneys forget, and/or don't bring things to court. While this is their job, it's YOUR LIFE.
- It's best to communicate in traceable ways, via email or text. If you have verbal communications, write down what was said by whom with the date and time. If you need to testify to anything, details rule. The more details you can recall the better. So write things down.
*Giving Notice - for obvious reasons, when you file any court hearing you are required to give notice, usually via certified mail, to all other parties involved.