A Child’s Support Needs are Measured by the Parents’ “Current Stations in Life”

Jon Cryer and Sarah Trigger Cryer were married in 2000 and had a child in June of that year. They are actors whose career paths diverged widely. As a co-star in the television show Two and a Half Men, Jon’s career soared. In contrast, Sarah’s career stalled; she has not acted since 2005. The couple separated in April 2004, around the time Jon finished his first season on Two and a Half Men. With Jon’s assistance, Sarah bought a condominium in December 2004.

In a stipulated divorce judgment entered into as part of their divorce, Jon agreed to pay Sarah $10,000 per month in child support. From December 2004 until May 2009, the child lived primarily in Sarah’s home. In May 2009, Jon’s divorce lawyer brought an ex parte (emergency) application in the divorce court requesting sole physical custody of the child, alleging that the child had been improperly cared for. The divorce court denied Jon’s divorce lawyer’s application but cautioned Sarah not to leave either of her children – one from Jon, one from her next husband – unattended. Later that month, Sarah’s younger son suffered an injury while in her home. That event led to a dependency action being brought against Sarah. Both children were immediately taken by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and placed with their respective fathers.

With the dependency action still pending, Jon’s divorce lawyer requested of the divorce court to have his monthly child support obligations reduced from $10,000 to zero. Jon’s divorce attorney argued that his previous stipulated divorce judgment with Sarah was based on her time spent caring for their child. His divorce lawyer contended that none of the money he was paying as child support went to the child. Sarah’s divorce lawyer argued that the child support obligation of $10,000 per month was not a burden on Jon since it constituted about 3 percent of his income at the time. Her divorce lawyer also argued that the custody arrangement ordered by the dependency court was temporary and subject to change, and that if she did not receive the child support then she would lose her house and car and be unable to pay other bills, which would in turn harm the child.

The divorce court required Jon to continue paying child support at a rate of $10,000 per month through 2009, and then $8,000 per month beginning in 2010. The divorce court found it was in child’s best interest to be able to return to the same home that he had shared with his mother prior to the dependency case, and that it was important for Sarah to have regular and consistent contact with him. The divorce court found that Jon was an “extraordinarily high earner,” and that “guideline” child support would be unjustly low and inappropriate under the circumstances.

Jon’s divorce attorney appealed. The appellate Court focused on Jon’s Hollywood celebrity income and Sarah’s income of almost nothing. Given these “unusual circumstances,” and with language focusing on “protecting child’s best interest,” the appellate Court affirmed the decision of the divorce court.

Under California law, a parent’s primary obligation is to support his or her minor children according to the parent’s ability. Children are entitled to share in the standard of living of both parents. The Cryer decision holds that departure from the standard child support formula by a divorce court may be appropriate when application of the formula “would be unjust or inappropriate due to special circumstances in the particular case,” such as situations where one parent makes significantly more money than the other.

In re Marriage of Cryer (2011) 198 Cal.App.4th 1039