Child support guidelines -- such as how amounts are calculated and enforced -- have changed dramatically throughout history. While the process has become much more transparent, with strict enforcement guidelines in most states, that was not always the case. In fact, most states gave judges complete discretion over child support orders prior to the development of standard guidelines. An estimated 30 percent of custodial parents had no child support at all as recently as 1984, right before federal guidelines were enacted.
This article explores the history of child support guidelines and main models used by states to calculate amounts. See FindLaw's Child Support section for additional articles and state-specific resources, including Child Support Statistics and Trends and Child Support Basics.
Child Support Prior to Formal Guidelines: Defining the Problem
Historically, the amount of child support awarded was completely within the discretion of the judge, based on the ability of the noncustodial parent to pay and the needs of the child. These are still important considerations today, but these awards were subject to five major problems in the absence of consistent guidelines:
These problems were of direct concern to the federal government, which provided the "safety net" for those families whose support was inadequate or simply not paid. Therefore, the federal government stepped in (beginning in 1935) out of substantial self-interest.
Child Support Guidelines: Federal Mandate
Congress enacted the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 (CSEA), which required states to strengthen their enforcement powers. The act required states to: (1) require employers to withhold child support from paychecks of delinquent parents for one month; (2) provide for the imposition of property liens against delinquent parents; and (3) deduct from federal and state income tax refunds unpaid support obligations. States receiving federal funds also had to offer full parent-locator and child support services to all custodial parents.
Additionally, the CSEA required states to establish advisory guidelines for determining child support amounts. The Family Support Act (FSA) of 1988 mandated that these guidelines be presumptive (rather than just advisory) by 1994.
Federal law also requires that each state: (1) establish criteria under which application of the guidelines might be unjust or inappropriate, and require written findings by the judge as to why the guideline amount is inappropriate; and (2) require that the guidelines also be used for any subsequent modification of the award.
In accordance with the FSA, state child support guidelines were required to:
Calculating Child Support: State Models
In response to the federal mandate, states devised different models for calculating child support awards, including:
There is no evidence that any one model is superior to any other model in terms of increased compliance, consistency, and ease of administration. But there is some evidence concerning adequacy of awards. One study indicates that the income shares model produces the highest awards for low-income families, the Melson Formula model produces the highest award for middle-income families, and the percentage of income model produces the highest awards in upper-income families.
There is also evidence that adoption of child support guidelines by a state, as opposed to no guidelines, reduced variation in awards; increased the adequacy of the awards; and increased the efficiency of the court processes, by increasing the number of voluntary settlements. A recent report also indicates that compliance is greatest among noncustodial parents who have joint custody or extended visitation.
FindLaw's Child Support Amounts section has additional articles and resources to help you better understand the process. Contact a local child support attorney if you have additional questions or need representation.
Get Legal Help to Better Understand Child Support Guidelines
Given the discretion that many judges have over child support orders and the various models that can be used, it may not always be easy to predict how much you could pay in child support. This can also make it difficult for you to start planning for your next steps in life. However, an experienced family law attorney who practices in your area would have a much better idea of how your courts determine child support. Make things easier on yourself and reach out to an experienced child support attorney today to discuss your specific situation.