Child Support Amount Calculations

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How Does the Court Determine the Amount of Child Support?

Federal law requires that all courts use some kind of official guideline or formula when determining child support payments to ensure that the amounts granted are not arbitrary (varying wildly from courtroom to courtroom). However, the federal law has not adopted any one guideline, so each state has its own method of determining how much each parent must pay for child support.

The guidelines all utilize extremely complicated formulas involving the parent's wages and hours of visitation granted and so forth, so you will likely have to contact a lawyer knowledgeable in family law to determine exactly how much you will have to pay.  

Common Factors Considered in Establishing Guideline Child Support

Although each state differs in its exact approach and mathematical formula, most of them consider the following factors in setting child support rates:

  1. Gross Monthly Income:  Obviously, the single greatest determiner of your child support payments will be your salary. Usually the courts will divide your monthly salary into weekly amounts, factor in the number of children you have, and then apply a formula to it to arrive at your basic child support amount (which can then be modified by other factors). This usually comes up with a set amount plus a percentage. 

    For example:  In Massachusetts, if your weekly salary is between $281 - $750, and you have one child, you must pay $59 + 23% of the salary per week.  But no matter what your income, you will generally be forced to pay at least $80 a week., unless you live below the poverty line.  However, the custodial parent's income also can change things, and if it grossly exceeds your own salary, the amount you must pay will likely be reduced at the judge's discretion.
  2. Number of Children: The number of children you have is certainly important, but it is generally not used as a multiplier. That is, the amount you must pay for one child will not usually double or triple for two or three children. The increase will be determined by computing a formula.
  3. Custody and Visitation: Some States, like Oregon, also employ complex formulas factoring in the amount of visitation time each parent is given. These "visitation time credits" can be used to lower the child support payments.
  4. Age of the Children: Often, Children above a certain age (usually 12) will be entitled to more than the basic child support amount.  Some states increase the final amount by 10%, for instance. Child support is usually not allowed after the child's 18th birthday (some exceptions to this rule, such as if the child has not graduated high school), and almost never after his 20th birthday.
  5. Health Insurance: The court will definitely inquire as to whether either parent has health insurance that will cover the child, and will generally lower the amount of payments necessary for the parent providing the coverage.
  6. Potential Earning Capacity: Almost every state gives judges the discretion to look at the non-custodial parent's earning potential, instead of his actual salary. That is, if you are earning far less than you could be (such as an engineer working at McDonalds for no good reason), the court will use your potential salary (that you could be making)  to calculate the child support.  But if there is a good reason for your choice of job, (such as working part time because you are caring for an infant), the judge will certainly take that into account as well.
  7. Subsequent Families:  In instances where the non-custodial parent has remarried and has children by a subsequent marriage, most courts will examine such circumstances closely to determine if further obligations would be unfair to the parent.   Subsequent families can be used as a defense to requests for a child support increase, but will almost never be allowed as evidence in a request to decrease past support obligations.

Judicial Discretion in Establishing Child Support

It should be noted, however, that, although federal law requires guidelines on the above issues, it also recognizes the difficult nature of child support cases.  Most states therefore give judges broad discretion in applying the various rules, and make plenty of room for exceptions. So, if your family situation has very unusual factors in it, it is very important to tell them to your family attorney so that they can be brought up in court.

Mandatory child support payments are a sad necessity in most divorces, but it is essential that you contact an experienced family lawyer to make sure the final amount settled on is fair and equitable. Look for an attorney who is fully prepared and familiar with applicable state laws before setting foot in a court room, because a court's judgment's on these issues can have a decade long effect on your life.

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Last Modified: 02-21-2017 08:32 AM PST

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