How to Calculate Child Support
Each state has different formulas they use to calculate child support. There are some considerations common to all states, however, and the following questions will help explain how a court will calculate your or your spouse's child support responsibilities.
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 party has sole custody, the other party must typically pay child support, whereas the party with custody is meeting their obligation through the support itself. 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 some federal guidelines exist 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 at a minimum:
- The financial needs of the child, including education, day care, 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 (although court's typically understand that it is difficult to maintain the same standard of living)
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 general, 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 that is entirely 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 mandatory expense in many states is existing child support obligations. If you are already paying child support, it is 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. The rationale is that a parent should not be able to avoid supporting his or her 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 hold a hearing, where you can lay out your justification for altering the existing child support arrangement. To discourage constant 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. Most judges will include this in their order to eliminate the need for future court hearings to increase child support as costs of living increase.