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Child Support Guidelines

Child support guidelines involving how amounts are calculated and enforced have changed dramatically. The process has become more transparent, with strict enforcement guidelines in most states. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, most states gave judges complete discretion over child support orders prior to developing standard guidelines. An estimated 30% of custodial parents had no child support at all as recently as 2017. This was the same in 1984 before the government enacted federal guidelines.

This article explores the history of child support guidelines and the main models used by states to calculate amounts.

Child Support Guidelines: Background Information

The state sets up child support guidelines. These guidelines affect the amount of child support that courts give to parents. What a parent must pay to meet their child support obligation to their minor children varies. The goal is that the amount is enough to take care of basic needs. This includes food, clothes, housing, and other needs like medical expenses and childcare expenses.

Child Support Before Formal Guidelines: Defining the Problem

The amount of child support awarded in the court order was completely within the discretion of the judge. The judge based the award on the ability of the obligor (parent without physical custody) to pay the basic child support obligation. This obligation was based on the number of children and the needs of the child under the best interest of the child standard. These are still important considerations today. But these awards were subject to major problems. Here are five major problems in the absence of consistent guidelines:

  1. Many eligible parents received no child support award.
  2. Most custodial parents with child support orders received an inadequate amount.
  3. Child support awards were very inconsistent.
  4. Due to this inconsistency, noncustodial parents often refused to pay. Parents rarely settled since neither parent could predict what a court would order.

Congress first addressed child support issues in 1935 with the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) provision of the Social Security Act. The AFDC is a public assistance program under the federal government. It gives support to children without parental support. This was the first federal law that dealt with child support. But then Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984. This later act attempted to address the issues above.

Child Support Guidelines: Federal Mandate

Congress passed the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 (CSEA). This required states to up their enforcement powers. The Act requires states to:

  • Have employers withhold child support from employment income, including paychecks of delinquent parents (income withholding)
  • Provide for property liens against delinquent parents
  • Deduct from federal income tax and state income tax refunds unpaid support obligations

The CESA gave states other requirements. They include:

  • States receiving federal funds had to offer full parent-locator services
  • States had to offer child support services to all custodial parents
  • States had to establish advisory guidelines for determining child support amounts

The Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988 required that these guidelines be presumptive rather than advisory by 1994. Federal law also requires that each state:

  1. Establish criteria under which the application of the guidelines might be unjust or inappropriate. Judges provide written findings to explain why the guideline amount is inappropriate.
  2. Ensure that the court uses the guidelines for any changes.

Through later legislation, lawmakers made more changes. State child support guidelines had to meet specific requirements:

  • To consider all earnings and income (gross income) of the noncustodial parent
  • To be based on specific criteria and result in the computation of the support amount
  • To provide for the child's health care needs and medical expenses, health insurance costs through health insurance coverage and health insurance premiums, or other means of medical support

Earnings and income include all self-employment income, worker's compensation benefits, Social Security benefits, and alimony/spousal support.

Calculating Child Support: State Models

States devised different models for calculating child support awards. All states have a general standard using state law for child support calculations. While income is the main factor, child custody is also important to how the models work. The state models include:

  • Income Shares Model: A child should receive the same proportion of parental income that they would have if the parents had not divorced or separated. Forty-one states, including CaliforniaFlorida, Maryland, and the District of Columbia, have this model.
  • Percentage of Income Model: Support comes from a percentage of the noncustodial parent's monthly income regardless of the custodial parent's income. Six states, including AlaskaNevada, and Texas, have this model.
  • Melson Formula Model: An elevated version of the income shares model. Factors include both parents' self-support needs and standard of living allowance. Three states, DelawareMontana, and Hawaii have this model.

There's no evidence that any model is better than any other. At least not in the areas of higher compliance, greater consistency, or easier application. But there is some evidence on the adequacy of awards. One study indicates that the income shares model produces the highest awards for low-income families. The Melson Formula model has the highest award for middle-income families. And the percentage of income model has the highest awards for upper-income families.

Get Legal Help to Better Understand Child Support Guidelines

Given the various models and the discretion that many judges have over child support payments, it may not always be easy to predict how much child support you could pay. Make things easier on yourself. Reach out to an experienced child support attorney today to discuss your specific situation.

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