How is Child Support Calculated?
Figuring out how much child support you’ll pay or receive can be confusing. This comprehensive guide will walk you through how child support is calculated, factors that affect the amount, and how to estimate your support using online calculators.
Child support ensures children’s financial needs are met when parents live apart. Getting an estimate helps you plan and know what to expect. Read on to learn everything you need to know about calculating this important payment.
What is Child Support?
Child support is money paid by one parent to help provide for the needs of a child they don’t live with full-time. When parents divorce or separate, one parent often has primary physical custody. The other parent typically pays child support to help the custodial parent pay for the child’s expenses.
Both parents share an equal duty to financially support their child. Child support aims to approximate the amount the noncustodial parent would have contributed if the family lived together. Support can help cover costs like:
- Medical and dental care
- Child care
Parents have a legal duty to financially support minor children, regardless of whether they were ever married. The court can order child support if the parents:
- Are divorced
- Are legally separated
- Have joint custody
- Were never married and live apart
Why is Calculating Child Support Important?
Getting an estimate of potential child support ahead of time is crucial for planning, whether you’ll be paying or receiving the support. Here are some key reasons calculating child support matters:
- Helps you financially prepare and budget appropriately when a child support order is put in place.
- Allows parents to understand how much will be paid/received, avoiding surprises down the road.
- Ensures the child’s needs are provided for fairly by both parents.
- Gives you an idea of what to expect so you can plan accordingly.
- Estimates can show if the court-ordered amount seems appropriate.
Having an estimate empowers you to make the best choices for your family’s situation when determining child support arrangements.
How Child Support Is Calculated Under State Guidelines
There are three main models used to calculate child support in the United States:
1. The Income Shares Model
This is the most widely used approach, adopted by 41 states as of 2022. The income shares model is based on the concept that a child should receive the same proportion of parental income that they would have received if the parents lived together.
Here’s an overview of how it works:
- Both parents’ combined monthly net income is determined. This includes wages, salaries, commissions, bonuses, dividends, pensions, interest income, social security benefits and other sources.
- The total monthly net income amount is used to find the “basic child support obligation” in the state’s child support guidelines table. This value represents the recommended support amount for a given income level and number of children.
- The basic support amount is adjusted for factors like health insurance costs, childcare expenses and additional qualified children. The adjusted amount is the “total child support obligation”.
- Each parent’s share of the total obligation is calculated using their proportionate share of the combined monthly net income.
- The parent who owes more pays the difference between the two shares to the other parent as the monthly child support payment.
The income shares approach aims to distribute the cost of raising a child between both parents based on their respective incomes and other factors.
2. The Percentage of Income Model
In this simpler model, child support is calculated by applying a flat percentage to the non-custodial parent’s income. The percentage increases incrementally for additional children. As of 2022, nine states use the percentage of income method.
For example, the model payment schedule may be:
- 17% for one child
- 25% for two children
- 29% for three children
- 31% for four children
- 34% for five or more children
To determine the support amount, the applicable percentage is multiplied by the non-custodial parent’s monthly net income. Some states use a variation where both parents’ incomes are factored in.
While easier to calculate, a drawback is that it may overestimate or underestimate the share of income needed based on the number of children.
3. The Melson Formula
Delaware uses the Melson Formula, which was developed by a judge, to determine support amounts. It has three main steps:
- Establish each parent’s available net income
- Calculate the “primary support needs” for the child(ren) based on a table of values
- Allocate the primary support obligation between the parents
- The primary support obligation is allocated between the parents with the non-custodial parent paying the assigned percentage and the custodial parent the rest.
Next, additional expenses like childcare and medical costs are factored in to arrive at the total child support order amount.
The Melson approach aims to provide a more precise financial estimate of child-rearing expenditures. However, the formula is unique to Delaware.
How Much Child Support for One Child?
As an example of how child support is calculated, if there is one child and the noncustodial parent has a net monthly income of $4,000, the custodial parent has a net monthly income of $2,000, and the state guideline for one child is 20% of income for the noncustodial parent, the child support payment would be calculated as:
- Noncustodial parent’s income: $4,000
- Custodial parent’s income: $2,000
- Combined monthly net income: $6,000
- Guideline: 20% of noncustodial parent’s income
- Child support amount: 20% of $4,000 = $800
So the noncustodial parent would pay $800 per month in child support based on this example.
How Long Must Parents Pay Child Support
Child support typically continues until the child turns 18 years old, but courts may order an extension under certain circumstances:
- If the child has not yet graduated high school, support often continues until graduation, but no later than 19 years old.
- For a child with disabilities who cannot support themselves, child support may continue indefinitely.
- If the child attends college or vocational school full-time, child support may continue until age 21 or 22 in some states.
- Emancipation of a minor through marriage, military service, or court order can terminate the support order.
Parents seeking to modify or terminate an existing child support order must file a request with the court and demonstrate a substantial change in circumstances, such as a loss of employment, decrease in income, or the child’s emancipation. Courts will not simply terminate child support automatically when the child turns 18 – action is required by one of the parents.
What Can Happen If A Parent Fails to Pay Child Support
If a parent fails to pay court-ordered child support, the custodial parent should contact their state’s child support enforcement office for assistance with collection and enforcement remedies. Some potential consequences for non-payment include:
- Wage garnishment where child support is withheld directly from the parent’s paycheck
- Interception of tax refund checks or stimulus payments
- Civil contempt charges where the parent is incarcerated until payments are made
- Suspension of business, professional, driver’s, and recreational licenses
- Reporting the unpaid support to credit bureaus which damages the parent’s credit score
- Property liens can be placed on the parent’s real estate or personal property
- Passport denial so the parent cannot travel internationally
- Automatic enrollment in New Hire registries so child support is withheld when the parent gets a new job
So parents under a child support order must pay the required amount each month or face potentially serious repercussions imposed by the court system and child support agencies. Avoiding payments is not an option.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Q: How does the child support calculator work?
A: The child support calculator uses a formula that takes into account the gross income of both parents, any deductions, and the number of children involved. It then calculates the presumptive child support amount that may be ordered by the court.
Q: Can the court deviate from the calculated support obligation?
A: Yes, the court can deviate from the guidelines if following them would be unjust or inappropriate. The court must provide justification for the deviation.
Q: Can child care expenses be included in the child support calculation?
A: Yes, child care expenses can be included in the child support calculation. These expenses are typically considered when determining the amount of support that should be paid or received.
Q: What is a modification of child support?
A: A modification of child support is when the existing court-ordered amount is changed due to a substantial change in the circumstances of either parent, such as a change in income. Either parent can file a request with the court to modify the child support order.
Calculating child support can be tricky to figure out. Here are some key things to keep in mind that might help:
- Child support is designed to cover the financial needs of the child, including health insurance, child care, and daily living costs.
- Online calculators can give you a rough estimate of what you might pay or receive. But the court’s final order could be different.
- Child support guidelines look at both parents’ incomes and number of kids. More money and more kids generally means higher support.
- Total monthly income for both parents is a big factor in deciding the amount.
- The child support order from court makes the payments official – how much and how often.
- How much you pay for one kid varies a lot based on incomes and what the child needs.
- Child support agencies have worksheets to calculate it right. Definitely use them.
- If something major changes, you can request the court modify the order.
If you’re unsure about anything, it’s always a good idea to talk with a child support lawyer or contact a family law professional. They can help you navigate the complexities of child support and ensure you fully understand your obligations and rights.