Each state has its own formula for calculating child support in divorce cases. Judges use those formulas to determine the appropriate amount of child support that should be assigned in each case.
These formulas can be complicated, but there are plenty of resources available that can give you a rough idea.
Factors in Calculating Child Support
The primary factor in calculating child support is how much the parent earns, along with their actual earning potential. Some states will look at both parents’ income, and some consider just the income of the noncustodial parent.
Another important factor in many states is the percentage of time that each parent spends with the children. In addition, states typically analyze at least some of these other factors in calculating the child support payments:
- Any child support or alimony a parent receives from a previous marriage;
- Whether a parent is paying child support or alimony from a previous marriage;
- Whether a parent is responsible for children from a previous (or later) marriage;
- Which parent is paying for health insurance, along with the cost of the coverage;
- Which parent is paying day care costs and that expense;
- The ages of the child or children;
- Whether a parent gets irregular income like sales bonuses or incentive pay, or expects severance pay or other lump-sum payments; and
- Whether a parent lives with a new partner or spouse who contributes to that family’s household expenses.
Remember that each state handles their calculations differently, and some states may not consider certain factors, such as the fact that a parent lives with a new partner or spouse who has an income that adds to that family’s household expenses, or if there are additional children from other unions.
Most courts hold that child support is more important than alimony. Because if this, the judge will calculate child support first, and then look at what income is remaining in coming to an amount of alimony.
Plus, it’s important to note that every state defines the term “income” differently. It could be gross income or net income, and it may or may not include gifts, bonuses, and overtime. The substantial investment income of a parent may also constitute income for purposes of calculating child support.
Can a Judge Deviate from the Guidelines to Give Me More Child Support?
Yes, there is a procedure for arguing that the statutory guidelines shouldn’t apply. If your ex-spouse doesn’t agree with you, your attorney will file a motion. The judge may schedule a hearing to listen to your arguments. If the judge agrees, the court is permitted to deviate from the statutory guidelines for a valid reason. Usually a non-exclusive list of valid rationale for the change is outlined in the statute.
You and your family law attorney should be prepared to present all the documentation that supports your position to the judge at the hearing (or in the motion). This evidence should be organized and clearly stated. For example, a detailed budget that highlights all of your expenses for your children will make an impression with the judge. It will show your attention to their needs and the seriousness of your request.
Here are some circumstances that might make a judge to modify child support above or below the guideline amount:
- The paying parent is unable to pay. If the noncustodial parent doesn’t earn much money, has lost his or her job, or has other financial obligations that make it impossible to pay the guideline amount, the court may lower the support amount. In this instance, the judge may also order the parents to return to court after some period of time so the judge can review their then-current financial circumstances.
- The noncustodial parent is able to pay more. If the paying parent earns a lot of money, has other significant assets, or receives in-kind compensation (like a home from his employer), the judge may increase the child support payments from the guideline amount.
- The guideline amount is greater than what’s needed. If the noncustodial parent makes a significant amount of money, and the guideline support amount would be much more than is needed to pay for the children’s regular expenses, the judge may decrease the amount.
- A child has special needs. If one of the couple’s children has a significant medical, psychological, or educational need, the judge may award a higher amount of support.
- A child has special interests. If one of the couple’s children is a budding violin player, sculptor, or is involved in sports or other activities, a parent can ask the court to order the paying parent to pay an additional amount so that the child can continue their activities and interests.
- The paying parent is gaming the system. It’s not uncommon for a parent’s earnings to not reflect his or her actual earning potential. For instance, if a parent has a degree in architectural design but is employer as a receptionist, and the judge has reason to think that the parent is intentionally avoiding his or her support obligations by taking a low-paying position, the judge may calculate the child support payment based on what the parent could be earning. This is known as imputing income.
Child Support Modification by the Judge
The amount of child support may be increased or decreased under certain circumstances, especially if a parent’s earning ability or a child’s financial needs have changed.
You and your attorney should review your divorce decree to understand the terms and to be certain that you’re complying with its provisions. If so, you can discuss asking the judge to modify the child support amount.
A child support modification can either be permanent or temporary, based on the circumstances. Temporary modifications of child support can be granted due to temporary situations like a child’s medical emergency, the temporary loss of employment by a parent, or a parent’s medical emergency. A temporary modification of child support can also be the result of a temporary change of child custody if one parent must be hospitalized or is to be out of the country for an extended period of time.
Speak to your family law attorney about child support calculations and a modification of child support if you’ve experienced a significant change in circumstances. Also be sure to read our Child Support 101 guide for more information.
Kurt R. Mattson is the President of Union Legal Research. He is the former Director of Library Services and Continuing Education at Lionel Sawyer & Collins in Las Vegas. Prior to this, he worked at BNA and other legal publishers, spending a substantial portion of his career working for Thomson Reuters. He serves as a consultant for several businesses, law firms, and marketing companies.
Kurt received his JD from William Mitchell College of Law and his Masters of Law (LLM) from George Washington University. He received his Masters of Library Information Science (MLIS) from Wayne State University.
Kurt is the editor of Lexis’ BSA/AML Update, co-author of A.S. Pratt’s Mortgage Procedure Guide to Federal and State Compliance, and author of Fair Debt Collection Practices: Federal and State Law and Regulation. He is also a contributing author of Brady on Bank Checks. Kurt is also a contributor to other business and legal publications.