How to Calculate Child Support

Each state has different formulas to determine how to calculate basic child support. However, there are some support issues common to all states.

 The following article will help explain how a court calculates child support obligations.

How Can Child Custody Arrangements Impact Child Support Obligations?

Child support obligations depend on whether one party has sole custody or both parents are awarded joint custody. When one parent has sole custody, the other parent pays child support. The non-custodial parent makes child support payments to the custodial parent. The parent with physical custody can be considered to meet their obligation by caring and providing for the child directly.

When a court awards joint custody, they look at how much each party earns and the amount of time (parenting time) the child spends with each parent. This includes the number of overnights in each parent's home. When parents have similar incomes and equivalent parenting time, child support may be reduced. If the state guidelines do not provide an avenue for this, the parties may agree to a deviation in support or request one from the court.

How Is Child Support Calculated?

Child support is formulated at the state level, but federal laws such as the Child Support Enforcement Act also have an impact. Each state sets up its child support system. Every state has child support guidelines that the family court uses to set child support amounts.

There is considerable variation between states in how they calculate child support. However, most states use the following criteria:

  • The financial needs of the child, including education, childcare/daycare, insurance, or any special needs
  • The income and needs of the parent with custody of the child
  • The paying parent's income and ability to pay
  • The child's standard of living before any separation or divorce
  • The number of children in the order and the number of any other minor children of the parent(s)

Parents must often detail their financial situation to the court, including monthly income and expenses. Although the income from your new spouse is not generally included in the child support calculation, it may be reviewed to the extent it lowers your household expenses. Parental income consists of more than just salary and wages. It can include:

  • Government benefits (unemployment, Social Security, etc.)
  • Pensions
  • Self-employment earnings
  • Alimony/spousal support

Can I Use a Child Support Calculator To Determine the Child Support Payments?

Yes, you can. But a child support calculator is a tool that gives you an estimate of the amount of support for your child support case.

The calculator requests similar information to the worksheet that the court uses to calculate child support. You provide information about each parent's income and the number of children you have. The combined income and other factors determine the amount.

Remember that the calculator may not include some important factors that the court uses. For example, you will let the court know about your financial situation. You will tell them about the amount of money that you spend. This can include your medical expense for health care and health insurance. It can include costs you pay for daycare and childcare, and other educational expenses.

The calculator will give you a guideline amount using the child support guidelines in your state. But the judge can deviate from the guidelines in some cases based on your unique circumstances.

When Establishing Someone's Ability To Pay Child Support, Do Courts Consider Loan Payments and Taxes?

In many states, when establishing someone's ability to pay, courts take a parent's gross income and subtract out any mandatory deductions, arriving at a "net income." Each state addresses deductions differently. In some states, mandatory deductions such as Social Security and income taxes may be used, but loan payments may not.

Some courts will consider loan payments and their basis when determining a parent's ability to pay, but it may be within the court's discretion. The rationale is that it is more important to pay for your child's support than to repay that loan you took to repair your bathroom.

Another typical expense in many states is existing child support obligations for other children. If you're already paying child support, you can likely get this included as a deduction. Finally, courts will often consider the paying parent's basic necessities, such as food, clothing, and shelter, when determining how much they can afford to pay. In recent years, state formulas have often adopted a "self-sufficiency reserve" for the payor.

Do Courts Evaluate How Much I Could Earn Versus What I Actually Make?

Many states allow a judge to consider what you could earn versus what you actually make when determining how to calculate child support amounts. The rationale is that a parent should not be able to avoid supporting their child by taking a "lesser" paying job and that the child's needs are always paramount.

When a court places your income at a higher figure than shown by the evidence, it is imputing additional income to you. When an able-bodied parent is unemployed but able to work, a court may impute to the parent a full-time minimum wage or a wage consistent with past earnings.

Likewise, if you left a good-paying job to go to law school, a court may establish your payments based on your old job, even if you make less coming out of law school. It may seem unfair, but the primary principle among family courts is that the child's future is more important than a parent's desires or dreams.

I'm Not Satisfied With My Existing Child Support Order. Can I Change It?

If you and the child's other parent agree, you can change it, but even agreed-upon modifications must be approved by a judge. If the other parent disagrees, you can file a motion in court to modify the support order. During a court hearing, you can lay out your justification for altering the existing child support arrangement.

State laws provide limitations on modification requests. They usually require a party to prove a significant change in circumstances before a court may modify the child support order. Typical changes that can result in modifications to a child support order include:

  • Receipt of additional income
  • Job change of either parent
  • Cost of living increases
  • Disability incurred by either parent
  • Increased needs of the child
  • Changes in parenting time exercised by the parents

It is also possible to get temporary modifications. Specific circumstances that require temporary modifications include:

  • The child has a medical emergency
  • The paying parent has a temporary inability to pay (loss of job or illness)
  • Temporary hardship of the recipient parent

Your child support enforcement agency may also have an administrative review timetable it follows. For example, they may review your case every three years and, if appropriate, recommend an adjustment in child support.

How Does a Cost-Of-Living Adjustment Clause (Cola) Work?

COLA clause adjusts the amount of child support against some economic indicator (e.g., the Consumer Price Index) to reflect increased costs of living over time. Many courts will include this in their order to eliminate the need for future court hearings to increase child support as costs of living increase.

If parents place such a clause in a child support agreement, they need to be clear on how it will operate. It may require a parent to alert the child support enforcement agency on an annual basis to do a review and request an adjusted order from the court.

Let an Attorney Show You How to Calculate Child Support

Calculating child support may involve several factors and can change over time. The laws of each state are different, and the formula used for calculating child support can be confusing. Having legal representation can make the process more transparent and less stressful. Getting legal advice might make you more comfortable with the process. Speak with an experienced family law attorney in your area about your child support claim.

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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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