Child Support Calculators: Are They Accurate?
By Danielle Gilmore, J.D. | Legally reviewed by Melissa Bender, Esq. | Last reviewed June 05, 2023
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One of the most frequently asked questions in any child custody case is, "How much child support will I need to pay?"
Custodial parents and non-custodial parents alike turn to online child support calculators to try to estimate the child support amount. Even if you and your co-parent have agreed on a child support payment, the judge's decision for the amount of child support that you pay could be different than what you see on the calculator. Judges base their decision on many factors.
This article provides information on why child support calculators can only provide an approximation of the child support you may owe.
What Is a Child Support Calculator?
Every state offers some way for parents to estimate child support payments. This tool is usually an online calculator that computes child support payments based on the financial information you input. The calculator usually resembles an online worksheet.
A child support calculator will request information such as:
- Parents' income (each parent's monthly income)
- The percentage of time the child spends with each parent (parenting time)
- Any benefits or tax credits you receive
Gathering Information Needed for Child Support Calculators
Before you can calculate the child support amount, you must gather specific information. Income information is a significant starting point. For child support purposes, “income" isn't just your salary and wages. “Gross monthly income" also includes pensions, workers' compensation, and spousal support/alimony. Net income is gross income minus certain expenses. You can subtract federal and state income taxes and taxes for Social Security, for example. You can include the number of children into the calculator.
After entering this information, the child support calculator uses a state-specific formula to predict how much you or the other parent will owe in monthly child support payments.
The Calculator's Result May Not Be Accurate for Your Situation
A child support calculator gives you a ballpark idea of how much your child support payment might be. But it is not, and cannot be, absolutely accurate. The calculator should provide a disclaimer that says it can only provide an estimate.
There are too many factors that a judge considers when arriving at a child support decision. A child support obligation varies drastically from one parent to another.
Factors Not Included in the Calculator
For one thing, you may interpret your financial and living situation differently than a judge would. You may have assumed that your child will spend 25% of their time with you. The judge may order 50% time. That will impact the child support order.
Day care/child care costs, education costs, and medical expenses, including health care and health insurance costs, may be part of the child support calculator, depending on what state you live in. If you have a "special needs" child, you probably have to pay for additional expenses to help your child. These expenses are not factors included in the calculator. A judge, on the other hand, incorporates these into their child support calculation.
Judges follow the state's child support guidelines. The needs of the children are the main focus of the guidelines. These guidelines tend to be highly technical, which is why child support calculators are popular. They simplify complex calculations. The cost of simplification is some inaccuracy.
Parents Can Agree on a Different Amount
What if you feel that a child support calculator's figure is too low or too high? Can you arrange with the other parent to pay a different amount?
Yes, most states allow parents to negotiate their own child custody plans and child support agreements, as long as they are reasonable. However, the judge can modify that child support agreement if they believe the terms are unfair or not in the best interest of the child. The judge may need to enter findings for deviating from the child support guidelines.
Get Answers to Your Questions About Child Support Calculations From an Attorney
Child support calculators are only a small part of understanding a parent's child support obligation. Rather than relying on child support calculators, consult an experienced family law attorney. A local child support lawyer can give you personalized legal advice.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.
Contact a qualified child support attorney to make sure your rights are protected.