Imputed income is income that a court assigns or credits to a party for the purpose of child support and / or spousal support. Income is typically imputed in situations where a party is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed. However, in some cases, courts have imputed income in situations where the evidence suggests a party has the potential to earn higher income, but has simply not taken a position or searched for a position that would permit that party to maximize his / her earnings. Additionally, some courts have imputed income to the property held by a party, such as stocks, bonds, real estate or other potential income earning property. The issue is one of fact for the trial court to consider and the history of imputation of income dates back to the late 1950s. The analysis of courts throughout the country has focused primarily on two issues:
1. What is the party’s earning potential?
2. Has the party voluntarily and deliberately taken action to reduce his / her earnings?
The following are a list of facts and factors that have influenced various courts in making the decision to impute income to the party owing the duty of support:
Support statutes around the country have evolved to incorporate the idea of imputed income. Upon recent review of the child support statutes and guidelines as well as statutory definitions of income applied throughout the United States, 48 states and the District of Columbia include provisions for the imputation of income to parties in divorce proceedings particularly in the case of voluntary unemployment or underemployment. Additionally, for those states like Illinois who do not address imputation of income directly within the statutory language, case law has developed and conforms generally with prior case history across the county to compel parties to pay child support at a level commensurate with their earning potential. For example, in Illinois, courts look to three primary factors in determining when it is proper to impute income to a noncustodial parent including 1) if the party paying support is voluntarily unemployed; 2) if the party paying support is attempting to evade a support obligation; or 3) if the party paying support has unreasonably failed to take advantage of an employment opportunity.
B. What is Support Income?
Support income is the income by which courts use to determine an individual’s child support or spousal support obligation. In most states, courts use gross income to determine a party’s child support obligation as most states follow the Income Share Model for child support. This model is rooted in the premise that a child should benefit from the combined income of both parents regardless of the fact that the family is no longer intact. A parent is assigned a proportion or percentage of support based on the income that parent provides with the parent who earns more of the income likely being the parent who will owe the duty of support simply based on the fact that his / her income is higher unless that parent is caring for the child substantially more than the other parent.
Eight states follow the Percentage of Income Model of child support which assigns support to the parent with less parenting time or the non-custodial parent as a percentage of that parent’s income. Two variations exist in this model, one that sets support as a flat percentage of the paying parent’s income and another which sets support as a varying percentage based on the paying parent’s income.
Only three states use an income share model that employs the Melson Formula. The Melson Formula is designed to ensure that the children’s needs are met financially as well as each parent’s basic needs. The three principles behind the model are that parents are entitled to keep sufficient income to meet their most basic needs in order to encourage continued employment; that until the basic needs of children are met, parents should not be permitted to retain any more income than that required to provide the bare necessities for their own self-support; and that where income is sufficient to cover the basic needs of parents and all dependents, children are entitled to share in any additional income so that they can benefit from the absent parent’s higher standard of living.
Unlike child support, the laws with respect to spousal support vary widely among jurisdictions. Durations vary from three years to awards that by law must endure permanently if found to be applicable in a specific case absent a substantial change in circumstances. There is also no uniformity among the states as to how spousal support should be calculated or whether it should be based off of gross versus net income. This creates a problem not only as it relates to a lack of consistency, but it also makes it difficult to predict outcomes. Consequently, there is a trend towards establishing and following guidelines for spousal support as has been the case with child support to address the issues of consistency and predictability.
Ultimately when analyzing either child support or spousal support, the question is what are the respective incomes of the parties? Whether you live in a state that applies gross income versus net income, there are a variety of income sources that must be taken into consideration.
C. Useful Resources to Establish and Evaluate Income
The most important resource available to the family law practitioner in establishing and then evaluating a party’s income is the discovery process. Service of both interrogatories and requests to produce / for production of documents are key to identifying and locating the various sources of income listed above. Discovery should be structured initially to cast a wide net as to all sources of income asking interrogatories that probe a party’s overall assets and request to produce / for production that require the sharing of documentation in support of a party’s interrogatory answers. Subpoenas may then be sent targeting specific areas of interest determined in the practitioner’s review of the discovery responses to obtain more detailed information that may be needed. Additionally, depositions may be used to fill in any gaps of understanding or to obtain valuable admissions of a party with respect to his / her income. Examples of documents that should be requested in discovery related to potential sources of income for both child support and spousal support include the following:
• Personal tax returns, both Federal and State;
• Business tax returns, both Federal and State;
• Statements from any checking, savings, certificates of deposit (CDs), money market accounts, stocks, bonds or other securities held in a party’s name or jointly with another person other than the spouse;
• Deeds to any real property owned by a party either individually or jointly with another person;
• Statements from any retirement accounts, such as Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), 401k plans, H.R. 10 plans and pension plans (the last 3 to 5 years);
• Personal financial statements prepared for or signed by a party for his / her benefit;
• Work lists, logs, ledgers or any other documentation used by a party to track services provided by a party if self-employed;
• Employment contracts;
• Annuity plans;
• Trust documents;
• Expense reimbursements from work including travel, auto, entertainment, business development / expenses;
• Articles of Incorporation;
• Shareholder agreements;
• Company year-end financial statements;
• Company trial balance reports; and
In addition to documentation about a party’s potential sources of income, it is important to ensure that discovery is included that captures a party’s expenses. Most jurisdictions require a party to provide to the court during a divorce proceeding a statement of his / her current income, assets and liabilities. Oftentimes, these statements oftentimes may be used in conjunction with a party’s discovery answers for impeachment purposes during deposition and in trial. Examples of documents that should be requested in discovery related to a party’s expenses for both child support and spousal support include the following:
• Personal financial statements prepared for or signed by a party for his / her benefit;
• Credit card statements;
• Mortgage or other loan statements;
• Invoices / receipts for all expenses claimed by a party including gas, electric, trash, sewer, cable, cell phone, internet and the like; and
• Statements from any checking or savings accounts from where a party’s expenses are paid; and
• Company year-end financial statements; and
• Company loans and outstanding debts.
Another tool in establishing and evaluating a party’s income is a vocational evaluation. Vocational evaluators are employed to assess the education, employment history, medical and psychological history of a party to determine the potential income of that party. In most state statutes, the earning capacity, educational and employment history of the spouse seeking support will have an effect on both the amount and duration of a possible support award. As an example, a vocational evaluator may be able to assess the prior work history of a party who has been voluntarily unemployed to determine what that party’s current earning potential may be or would have been had the party not chosen to become voluntarily unemployed. In circumstances where it may not be possible for a vocation evaluator to personally interview and take history from a party for an evaluation, a practitioner may work closely with an evaluator to tailor specific discovery requests to address the information an evaluator would need to conduct an assessment.
Once a practitioner has obtained all of the necessary responses to discovery, additional experts may be of use including accountants, financial advisors, business valuators or possibly legal professionals to interpret the information contained in documents such as tax returns, partnership agreements, corporate bylaws or investment plan rules and procedures. Additionally, it may be necessary to depose retirement or investment plan representatives to gain a better understanding of the rules and procedures that govern a party’s plan or plans which in turn can help the practitioner understand what income may be accessible to a party after a divorce. As an example, investment accounts, stocks, money market accounts, certificates of deposit (CDs), may be invested by alternative means that would provide a party income after a divorce. An appropriate financial expert can assist the practitioner in laying the foundation for this type of evidence.
D. Importance of Getting History of Full Tax Returns, Including Supporting Documents
One of the most important pieces of documentation that should be requested in discovery is a party’s full and complete tax returns. This is particularly true for parties who are self employed, own their own organized business entity or partnership or are part owner of an organized business entity or partnership. The tax code provides numerous deductions that a party or business entity may employ to reduce overall income and thus reduce the party’s overall tax burden. It is important for a practitioner to have a basic understanding of how to read tax returns including Profit or Loss from Business statements, Form 8825 Rental Real Estate Income and Expenses of a Partnership or an S Corporation and Form 1065 U.S. Return of Partnership Income to name a few. Additionally, the schedule K included in a corporate or individual tax return provides guidance to the practitioner about what ownership interest a party has in a particular business entity.
Depreciation is a deduction that is often included in a party’s business or corporate tax return. The Internal Revenue Service defines depreciation as a deduction that allows a person or entity to recover the cost or other basis of certain property over the time the property is used. It is an allowance for the wear and tear, deterioration, or obsolescence of the property.
The deduction for depreciation has been a hotly contested issue throughout jurisdictions around the country. For individuals who are self-employed, the depreciation deduction can have a dramatic effect on a party’s overall gross income. Nearly every state provides that in the calculation of income for self employed individuals as it relates to child support, a party’s necessary expenses required to produce such income may be deducted. The real question that courts have wrestled with is whether depreciation is an actual expense required to produce such income. For example, a party may purchase and renovate a rental property. All of the fixtures, such as flooring, appliances, light fixtures, cabinetry, etc. that the party installs in each of the units is potentially depreciable. The deduction for the depreciation of all of these items could be substantial and in some cases, large enough that it creates the appearance on a tax return that the party has earned no income. While the party has no income for the purpose of income taxes owed to the Federal or State government, in actuality, the party may have substantial available income. The issue can be compounded when a party has taken out a loan to make all of the renovations and purchase all of the fixtures. Not only will the party get to deduct depreciation on all of the fixtures, but the party will also get to deduct the interest on the loan used to purchase the fixtures.
Ultimately, an expert will likely be needed to help track a party’s actual business expenses and to assist in explaining to the court why depreciation should or should not be considered. Depending on the jurisdiction within which you practice, your state’s guidelines may address the issue of depreciation expressly, either allowing or not allowing the deduction, or there may be case law that specifically states that depreciation is allowed or is not allowed. In some instances, certain types of depreciation may be allowed in cases, such as straight-line depreciation where the straight-line depreciation reflects the actual cost of producing the income.
E. Impact on Child and Spousal Support
Whether you are in a State that calculates child support using gross or net income figures, it is important for the practitioner to be aware of the various sources of income available to a party particularly in the case of self-employed parties as previously discussed. Simply using a party’s gross income or adjusted gross income as reflected on a party’s tax return may not be sufficient. Careful scrutiny should be made of the entire tax return to determine whether additional income may be captured.
The self-employed party also presents a significant issue with respect to work that may be done by the party on a cash basis. Work lists, logs, ledgers or any other means of documentation used by a party to track services provided should be requested through the discovery process to establish potential cash income.
Finally, gaps between a party’s expenses as compared to income may provide a means for a court to infer additional income to a party. For example, a party’s financial statement may reflect both little to no income and substantial loans and other business expenses with no evidence that the party is incurring additional debt to make the monthly loan and business expenses. The discrepancy can be demonstrated through testimony and financial records to establish additional income that the court can impute.
In the case of spousal support, imputation of income is most important at the outset of a divorce case. Oftentimes, the self-employed spouse will attempt to hide income, particularly cash income, to minimize his / her potential maintenance obligation. It is important for the practitioner to gain as much of an understanding as to the self-employed spouse’s business as possible including who the clientele of the business are which can assist the practitioner in filling in gaps in income from those clientele that paid cash for services.
F. Proving Intentional Unemployment / Underemployment
Proving intentional unemployment or underemployment will be an issue of fact for the court to determine in divorce proceedings. However, not every state requires a finding that a party specifically acted intentionally and with a primary purpose to be unemployed or underemployed. In cases where a party has intentionally acted, the question of fact focuses on the whether a party has acted to intentionally deny the other party of support or is voluntarily avoiding earning income at full capacity. In addition to the cases discussed in Section A above, the following are additional examples of fact patterns where court’s have found a party to be intentionally unemployed or underemployed:
• Miller v. Miller, 436 A.2d 279 (Conn.1980): Husband was employed for over twenty years. At the time the divorce proceeding commenced, the Husband was employed and then voluntarily left employment during the pendency of the case. The Court imputed income to Husband commensurate with prior earnings.
• Illiff v. Illiff, 339 S.W.3d 74 (Tex. 2011): Husband was employed earning over $100,000 per year. Six months before filing of divorce, Husband voluntarily left his employment, was not disabled in any way and his intention was to start his own business. Court imputed income to Husband commensurate with his prior earnings even though there was no evidence Husband had quit his job to avoid paying child support.
• In re Marriage of Hinman, 64 Cal. Rptr. 2d 383 (Cal. Ct. App. 1997): Mother started a new family after initial divorce and stopped working to be a stay at home parent to new children. Father had custody of four children from prior marriage. Court imputed income to Mother based on most recent job earnings finding Mother was voluntarily unemployed and had a duty to support her children.
• Larrison v. Larrison, 919 A.2d 852 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2007): Court of appeals remanded case for the trial court to determine if a stay-at-home mom with two children under the age of five should be imputed income based on her earning capacity.
From the cases discussed previously and here, recent work history is one of the key evidentiary factors that impact a court’s decision to impute income. Additionally, in states that utilize the Income Share Model of support, the earning capacity of both parties is a factor that must be considered and evaluated. The Larrison and Hinman cases are instructive as to the progression of child support cases in that the courts have imposed the obligation of support to both parents and rejected the idea that child rearing duties excuse that party’s duty of support.
Similarly in spousal support cases, the earning capacity of both parties is at issue, particularly in the case of the spouse seeking support. Voluntary unemployment during the marriage when there was no reason or cause for the period of unemployment, such as caring for young children is an important factor for the court to consider. Voluntary underemployment at or near the time of the divorce as in the cases involving child support is also a factor to be considered in cases involving spousal support. In some cases, employment potential of the spouse seeking support is diminished if the marriage was a long term marriage wherein the spouse never worked outside the home and the age of the spouse is such that the potential for significant and substantial employment is minimized. The overall trend throughout the country appears to be moving away from the more traditional approach of deference towards the homemaker spouse. This is of course dependent on the length of the marriage and age of the parties when they divorce, as spouses who have spent a majority of their life in the homemaker role in most cases have been found to be in need of support and courts have been much less inclined to impute income.
G. Proving Income Potential When the Spouse is Self-Employed
As previously discussed in Section D above, it is critically important to have full and complete tax returns, work lists, logs, ledgers, and bank statements from an individual who is self-employed when assessing the issue of child or spousal support. Additionally, personal financial statements prepared for a party with respect to loans or business planning can be equally valuable in assessing a party’s income. Oftentimes, banks will require a self-employed party to provide full disclosures about the party’s business net worth and liabilities in connection with business loans being sought by a party. In most cases, a party will be more open in disclosing information to a financial institution regarding the party’s net worth and assets underreporting the party’s overall financial status will inhibit that party’s ability to get the financial assistance he / she is seeking. These are especially useful as well in impeaching a party’s testimony as the party’s answers to interrogatories or statements made in a deposition are often contradictory to the disclosures they have previously made to third parties, such as banks.
Tax returns, trial balances, year-end financial statements and the like can quickly become overwhelming even for the seasoned family law practitioner. In most cases, an expert will be necessary to assist the practitioner in wading through the financial documents, answering questions that will help the practitioner guide the court through the complexity of the financials and assisting in tracing money through various business and personal accounts if necessary.
Another key issue to be aware of with respect to the self-employed party is to compare the salary of the party to the overall income and cash flow of the business. In some cases, a party may pay him / herself a salary that is far below the potential in which the party could be paying him / herself. In those cases, and with the assistance of expert testimony, the court may impute income to the party at higher rate for the purposes of child or spousal support. A vocational evaluator may also be employed to establish what similar individuals involved in the same business or industry earn as further support for the court to impute a self-employed party additional income.
H. Other Assets That May be Used to Pay Support
There are often overlooked assets in child and spousal support cases that should be evaluated particularly in the case of party who claims to be unable to work or earn income. Some underemployed individuals are the beneficiaries of trusts that provide periodic payments. The income distributed from the trust should be considered available income to party for the payment of child or spousal support. It is important when dealing with a potential trust to request any trust documents and accounts associated with the trust as well as the name of the trustee. If a party is not forthcoming with full documentation concerning the trust, a practitioner may then send a subpoena to the trustee requesting all of the information needed in connection with the trust to evaluate the party’s income from the trust.
Some courts have included interest earned on Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) as income for the purpose of evaluating income available to a party. The same has been true for unexercised stock options, if they are available to a party, but have not yet been accessed by the party. Capital gains from stock sales are another example of an asset that some courts have found to be income. Capital gains, unlike IRA interest or unexercised stock options are taxable as income, but are not actually received as income. Capital gains in stocks or other items of property you own occur when you sell an item for more than what you purchased the item. The Internal Revenue Service requires the reporting of capital gains, however in the case of stock transactions, the gains are usually reinvested and the income is never realized directly to the party owning the stock. Careful review of your jurisdiction’s case law should be reviewed in cases where a party has more complex assets such as those described in this section.
I. Main Resources Used to Determine Income to Impute
The following is a listing of various income sources to consider when assessing child support or spousal support:
• Salaries and wages (including tips, commissions, bonuses, profit sharing, deferred compensation, and severance pay);
• Income from overtime and second jobs
• Income from contractual agreements; investment and interest income (including dividends);
• Pension income;
• Trust or estate income;
• Capital gains, (unless the gain is nonrecurring);
• Social Security benefits;
• Veterans’ benefits;
• Military personnel fringe benefits;
• National Guard and reserve drill pay;
• Benefits received in place of earned income (i.e. workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment insurance benefits, strike pay, and disability insurance benefits);
• Gifts and prizes (including lottery and gambling winnings);
• Education grants (including fellowships or subsidies that are available for personal living expenses);
• Income of a new spouse, to the extent that income directly reduces expenses of the parent;
• Alimony received from a person other than the other spouse in the present case; and
• Income from self-employment (including rent, royalties, and benefits allocated to an individual for a business or under taking in the form of a proprietorship, partnership, joint venture, close corporation, agency, or independent contractor);
• Interest earned on Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs);
• Unrealized gains from unexercised stock options;
• Retained earnings of a corporation, partnership, or sole proprietorship;
• Income from a trust;
Discovery should be tailored to request the above information from a party. Sample interrogatories and requests for production are included in the appendix to these materials. Additionally, and has been discussed previously, the use of financial experts and vocational examiners may be needed to identify additional income sources to impute to a party or to provide a basis for imputing income to a party as compared to similarly situated persons in the workforce.
J. What Constitutes a “Change in Circumstances” and What Evidence Supports It Best
In order to obtain a modification of child or spousal support, laws throughout the country require that the party seeking the modification demonstrate that a change of circumstances has occurred that would support an alteration of a party’s child or spousal support obligation. With respect to spousal support, the most common type of modification sought is a reduction or termination of the spousal support obligation by the paying spouse. In the case of child support, modifications can be sought by either party whenever there has been an increase or decrease in income.
Modifications of spousal support are sought for a variety of reasons, but the most common include cohabitation by the party receiving support with a party of the opposite sex or in some cases, the same sex; job loss that is not voluntary or an attempt to avoid paying support; retirement; loss of income that is not voluntary or in an attempt to avoid paying support; remarriage by the spouse receiving support and death of a spouse.
With respect to termination of spousal support on the basis of cohabitation, there are several states that have statutes that provide for immediate termination of spousal support upon proof that the spouse receiving support is cohabitating. However, some states consider cohabitation as an event that triggers modification of spousal support, but not necessarily termination. Some states require that the cohabitation be with a person of the opposite sex while other states provide that cohabitation with any person where the parties share expenses can qualify as cohabitation.
The real question is how do you prove cohabitation? What factors do courts consider when assessing cohabitation? As an example, Michigan uses a multi-prong test to determine if parties are cohabitating.
• The parties must be living together.
• The living together must be of a sustained duration.
• The parties must be sharing the day-to-day expenses of the residence.
• Did the parties intend to cohabitate?
• Did they hold themselves out as living together?
• Did the parties have a sexual relationship?
• Was marriage contemplated?
• Did the parties assume obligations generally arising from marriage?
• Did the parties keep joint accounts?
• Were the parties economically interdependent?
• Did the spouse receiving support use his / her spousal support to subsidize the cohabitation?
In the Smith case, the plaintiff sought termination of his spousal support obligation on the basis of the defendant’s relationship with another man. The parties did not live together, share expenses, were not in contemplation of marriage and lived apart for a substantial majority of the year in separate states. While the parties were in a monogamous relationship, there were no other factors that supported cohabitation and the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision not to terminate the plaintiff’s spousal support obligation to the defendant.
States are split as to whether or not retirement should qualify as an automatic change of circumstances that would warrant modification or termination of spousal support. Several states provide that spousal support automatically terminates upon a party reaching the full age of a retirement. Other states provide that retirement at full retirement age is a rebuttable presumption for termination of spousal support and permit the courts to use discretion for good cause shown in extending spousal support beyond a party’s retirement age. Additionally, some States provide that if retirement is taken in an attempt to avoid spousal support, spousal support cannot be modified.
When a party experiences a bona fide job loss or reduction in his / her income, a modification of child and / or spousal support is warranted. Similarly, if a spouse receiving support is no longer in need alimony due to an increase in finances or some other financial windfall, a modification of spousal support is warranted and in some cases should be terminated. For example, if at the time spousal support is set, the party receiving support is not employed and then obtains significant employment, the paying spouse has cause to seek a modification.
In re Marriage of Gosney, 334 Ill.Dec. 199 (2009); see also In re Marriage of Adams, 348 Ill.App.3d 340 (2004); In re Marriage of Sweet, 316 Ill.App.3d 101 (2000); In re Marriage of Hubbs, 363 Ill.App.3d 696 (2006).
Laura W. Morgan, The Deductibility of Depreciation as a Legitimate Business Expense of Self-Employed Parents, Support Guidelines.com, (last visited October 18, 2015), http://www.supportguidelines.com /articles/art200208.html.
Jeralyn L. Lawrence & Joseph M. Freda, III, The Imputation of Income and Its Impact Upon the Dependent Spouse – A Historical Analysis from Khalaf to the Present, http://www.nmmlaw.com/pdf/JLL%20 Imputation%20Issues.pdf.
Charles P. Kindregan & Christina M. Knopf, Attributing Income in Massachusetts Domestic Relations Cases, http://www.massbar.org/publications/lawyers-journal/2012/december/attributing-income-in-massachusetts-domestic-relations-cases;