What Are Child Support Guidelines?

Child support guidelines set how courts calculate amounts each parent contributes toward raising the child. They also create child support enforcement methods.

Child support guidelines 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 control over child support orders before these 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 how child support guidelines have evolved and the main models states use to calculate amounts. Understanding these guidelines can help you know what to expect from courts. 

Child Support Guidelines Affect Payment Amounts 

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.

Why Lack of Child Support Guidelines Was a Big 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 each child's needs under the best interest of the child standard. These are still important considerations today. 

Yet, these awards were subject to five major problems without consistent guidelines, including:

  • Many eligible parents received no child support award.
  • Most custodial parents with child support orders received an inadequate amount.
  • Child support awards were very inconsistent.
  • Due to the 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.

Early Federal Laws for Child Support Rulings

The Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 (CSEA) required states to raise their enforcement powers. It also required states to create guidelines to help judges determine child support amounts. 

The Act requires states to:

  • Have employers deduct child support from delinquent parents' paychecks (income withholding)
  • Provide for property liens against parents who fail to make payments
  • Deduct unpaid child support from federal income tax and state income tax refunds
  • Offer full parent-locator services (if the state receives federal funds)
  • Offer child support services to all custodial parents

Soon after, the Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988 required states to make child support guidelines mandatory (presumptive) rather than a suggestion (advisory) for judges. This change put state guidelines in the forefront of child support cases. Courts must use them when awarding and modifying child support.

Federal Requirements for State Child Support Guidelines

Lawmakers later made more changes to child support laws. These changes help ensure the guidelines are more consistent between states.

State child support guidelines must meet specific requirements, including to:

  • Consider all earnings and income (gross income) of the noncustodial parent, which includes any self-employment income, worker's compensation benefits, Social Security benefits, and alimony/spousal support
  • Be based on specific criteria and result in the computation of the support amount
  • 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

States must also have criteria to determine when it would be unjust or inappropriate to apply the guidelines. In these cases, judges explain why the amount under the guidelines would be unfair. 

Federal law still allows some flexibility in how states can define child support guidelines. Today, states often consider similar factors but with slight differences in how they use those factors to calculate awards. 

State Models Calculate Child Support Differently

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 possible state models and their underlying theory 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: This model is like the income shares model, but the factors also include both parents' self-support needs and standard of living allowance. Three states, DelawareMontana, and Hawaii have this model.

Which State Has the Best Child Support Guidelines?

There's no evidence that any model is better than any other. At least not in terms of higher compliance, greater consistency, or easier application.

But there is some evidence on awards by economic class. One study suggests that the income shares model produced the highest awards for low-income families. The Melson Formula model had the highest award for middle-income families. And the percentage of income model had the highest awards for upper-income families. 

Get Legal Help To Understand Child Support Guidelines

Despite the guidelines, predicting how much child support how might pay or receive can be difficult. Each state's model and even each judge's discretion could affect the final award.

You may get a better idea of what to expect by seeking legal advice. Reach out to an experienced child support attorney today to discuss your specific situation.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Some states allow you to set up child support with forms and court processes
  • You may need legal help to set up or modify child support arrangements
  • If there is conflict, an attorney can advise if the other parent’s actions are legal 

Get tailored advice about paying or receiving child support. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child support arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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