How to Calculate Child Support
By FindLaw Staff | Legally reviewed by Hal Armstrong, Esq | Last reviewed November 12, 2021
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Each state has different formulas that they use in determining how to calculate child support. However, there are some support issues common to all states. The following questions will help explain how a court will calculate your child support obligations.
How can custody arrangements impact child support obligations?
Child support obligations depend on whether one party has sole custody or whether both parents are awarded joint custody. When one parent has sole custody, the other parent typically pays child support. The parent with custody can be considered to be meeting their obligation by caring and providing for the child directly. When joint custody is awarded, support obligations are based on how much each party earns and the percentage of time the child spends with each party.
How is child support calculated?
Child support is formulated at the state level but there are also federal guidelines under the Child Support Enforcement Act. Because each state sets up its own child support system, there is considerable variation between states in how they calculate child support. However, most states evaluate the following criteria:
- The financial needs of the child, including education, daycare, insurance, or any special needs
- The income and needs of the parent with custody of the child
- The income and ability to pay of the parent who is paying child support
- The child's standard of living before any separation or divorce
Parents are often obligated to detail their financial situation to the court, including monthly income and expenses.
Do courts consider loan payments and taxes when establishing someone's ability to pay child support?
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". Typical mandatory deductions include things like Social Security and income taxes, whereas things such as loan payments are not considered mandatory.
Some courts will consider loan payments and their basis when determining a parent's ability to pay but it may be within the courts' discretion. The rationale is that it is more important to pay for your child's support than to pay back that loan you took out to repair your bathroom.
Another typical expense in many states is existing child support obligations. If you're already paying child support, it's likely you can get this included as a mandatory 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.
Do courts evaluate how much I can earn versus what I do earn?
Many states allow a judge to consider what you could earn versus what you actually earn 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.
For example, 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 doesn't agree, you can request a court to modify the support order. During a court hearing, you can lay out your justification for altering the existing child support arrangement.
To discourage regular modifications and court hearings, a court will typically not modify an agreement unless a party can show a change in circumstances. 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
It is also possible to get temporary modifications. Typical 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
How does a cost of living adjustment clause (COLA) work?
A 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.
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. Speak with an experienced family law attorney in your area about your child support claim.
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Contact a qualified child support attorney to make sure your rights are protected.