Setting Child Support Amounts

States rely on their individual child support guidelines, which may differ significantly from one another, to determine the amount of child support to be paid. 

Child Support Amount Factors

The main criteria that the courts tend to take into consideration are 1) the parents' expenses and respective incomes, 2) the child's standard of living preceding separation or divorce, 3) the payor's ability to make payments, and 4) the child's needs.

What Is Considered "Income"?

In calculating child support, judges examine either the parents' gross income or net income (which deducts state and federal income taxes, health insurance premiums, social security taxes, etc...) from all sources.  Income includes the following:

  • wage earnings,
  • pensions;
  • severance pay
  • investments,
  • inheritances,
  • estate or trust income;
  • capital gains;
  • royalties,
  • education grants;
  • dividends,
  • commissions,
  • prizes (i.e. lottery winnings);
  • earnings from seasonal work,
  • in-kind benefits or services received in lieu of wages,
  • bonuses,
  • Variable Housing, BAS and BAQ allowances;
  • interest on IRAs;
  • income from self-employment;
  • annuity payments; and
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

In the majority of states, the court can consider both a parent's actual earnings and his or her ability to earn.  In some jurisdictions, the courts can deviate from the child support guidelines and reduce a parent's child support payments if he or she is supporting a child or children from a previous relationship.  If a parent lives with a new partner whose income decreases the parent's expenses, that contribution will be included in the latter's gross income for purposes of child support.  The same holds true for alimony received from a previous marriage since that too is included in the gross income calculation.

The court also considers the child's needs in calculating child support.  It takes into account the children's age and the number of children in the household for which the non-custodial parent is responsible.  In general, a child with special needs and an older child will generally require more financial support, although the cost of daycare for young children and infants can be substantial.  Other factors that trigger deviations in child support are health insurance considerations, child care costs, and educational needs such as college expenses.  When deviating from the child support guidelines, the courts may also consider other expenses such as summer camps, holidays, and other activities.

Setting Higher Or Lower Child Support Amount

To request an upward or downward departure from the child support guidelines, the party must file an Order to Show Cause.  The parent may do so by either proceeding pro se or hiring an attorney.  A modification of the child support order is granted upon a showing of a significant change of circumstance.  Some of the types of evidence needed to obtain an upward or downward departure from the guidelines are as follows:

  • Noncustodial parent's voluntary underemployment or unemployment;
  • Financial contributions by the non-custodial parent's new partner with regard to household expenses;
  • Leisure activities;
  • Out-of-pocket health expenses;
  • Childcare expenses;
  • Shared or joint custody arrangement;
  • Debts of non-custodial parent;
  • Non-custodial parent's high income;
  • Burdensome transportation costs;
  • Child's substantial income (i.e. from an inheritance); and
  • Special scholastic needs (i.e. speech therapy).
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