How Is Child Support Determined?

Learn about how courts calculate child support using a variety of factors.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

Whether you're going through a divorce or a breakup, if you have children, it's likely that you've already thought about child support. Contrary to popular belief, even though the payment goes directly to the child's primary caregiver, it is the child who is entitled to the support—not the parent receiving the payment. In most states, child support obligations continue until the child is 18 or graduates from high school. Some states require child support to continue through college.

To eliminate any question of unfairness, courts use a pre-determined formula to calculate the amount of support in every case.

What Does the Child Support Formula Include?

Income. The first (and typically most important) factor in every child support case is each parent's income. At the beginning of every case, both parents must share and submit the following to the court:

  • recent W-2s
  • paystubs (to show hourly rate or salary, hours worked, and tax exemptions), and
  • any other documents showing income, which can include wages, overtime pay, tips, gratuities, payments from an IRA, rental income, bonuses, commissions, or any other money from all employers.

If one parent is self-employed, the court will review personal and business tax returns to determine income.

One of the most contentious aspects of child support determinations is when one parent believes the other is trying to avoid paying child support by remaining underemployed or unemployed. If a judge finds that a parent is purposely earning less, or is voluntarily unemployed, the court may "impute" income. This means that when using the child support formula, the court will use an income amount that the parent should or could be earning if they were fully and appropriately applying their education and job skills rather than the parent's actual income.

Dependents. The court will request dependency information from each parent before calculating support. If one parent has other children and is legally obligated to support the other children, the court will consider this when determining support.

Overnight Visits. Most child support formulas include the number of overnight visits with each parent in the end calculation. The point of overnight visits in the formula is to give credit to each parent for the time they are financially responsible for the child. For example, if one parent has sole physical and sole legal custody of the child and the other sees the child only once per week for a non-overnight dinner visit, the court must allocate the proper amount of support to the custodial parent.

On the other hand, if both parents equally share financial responsibility for the child throughout the year and share physical and legal custody, the recipient parent may only need a small child support award.

It's a common misconception that if parents share physical and legal custody, neither parent will receive or pay child support. Although overnight visits are one factor, the court also must consider other factors such as income, who pays for health care, who pays for child care, and how many dependents each parent is financially responsible for.

Health Care Costs. The parent paying for health care for the child will almost always receive a credit in the child support formula for the amount paid for the child's insurance. You must be able to provide evidence of the payroll deduction or amount you pay each month in health care for the court to consider this in your case.

Child Care Expense. Child care is, no doubt, one of the most expensive aspects of raising children today. In many states, full-time daycare can cost anywhere from $10,000-$50,000 per year. If one parent carries the burden of child care throughout the year, the court will credit the paying parent in the formula.

Other Deductions. If a parent pays spousal support or child support for other children, the court will also add this information to the formula before determining a final number.

The Formula Controls

Every state presumes that the child support calculation produces the correct amount of child support for each case. In some cases, parents can agree to reduce or increase this guideline amount (unless the recipient parent receives state aid, in which case parents can't agree to change the formula).

If you and your ex can't agree on child support, you'll need to ask the court to decide. Typically, judges won't deviate from the formula unless one parent can demonstrate that there are extenuating circumstances that require a deviation.

If you're considering asking for child support or, if your child's other parent is requesting payment, contact an experienced family law attorney in your area for more information on your state-specific child support laws.

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