Child support is payment parents must make till the child reaches the age of 18 or 19 once they divorce or separate. Different states may slightly vary on the age difference but the majority of the states have a consensus on it. The parents are allowed to agree on the amount of the child support but the court cannot enforce a child support agreement until the case is brought before a judge. If the parents for some reason cannot agree on the child support amount, the court may set the amount. 

Generally, the child support is paid by the “non-custodial parent,” usually the earning parent and the one who has less parenting time. The payments are usually made to the “custodial parent” who cares for the child and typically lives with them. The guidelines may vary state by state on the child support but usually include the number of children, both parents’ incomes and certain child-related expenses. 

What is Imputed Income?

Imputed income is income that is credited to a parent even though that parent is not actually earning that amount. The judges impute income to ensure that the child’s needs are met and to deter parents from lowering their responsibilities. For instance, if parent A has been earning $80,000 a year in a stable, full-time job but suddenly appears at a child support hearing claiming poverty, the judge will want to inquire about the drastic change in the income especially if that parent is paying the child support payments. Additionally, parent B will have an opportunity to show the judge that parent A is acting in bad faith.

After further review and evaluation if the judge determines that there is not a valid reason for lower child support payment, the court may impute income to parent A. If parent B can show that parent A voluntarily quit work , this would not be considered a valid reason for the court. For instance, some states will look at three factors when determining whether to impute income to a parent. The factors include:

  • Ability to work; 
  • Opportunity to work and; 
  • Willingness to work; 

Therefore, typically the most determining factor in making a decision about imputing income is the reason for the unemployment or underemployment. For example, some parents do in fact suffer a legitimate job loss and may not have income imputed immediately. The judges thoroughly examine each case and look at the situations that surround that family to make a decision that best serves the interests of the child. 

How Does the Court Decide on Child Support?

Many states utilize several online child support calculator tools, which allow parents the flexibility to estimate their child support obligations. These calculators base the child support payments on each parent’s income and the number of children covered by that child support order. States vary on the rules and regulations as to the definition of income. 

Therefore, it is important to research the local state guidelines for further assistance with this issue. For instance, one parent’s salary, tips, bonuses, overtime pay, and commissions may all constitute total income for the purposes of child support. However, the judge has the discretion to review the child support amount and can adjust it if necessary.

The courts may reduce or increase a parent’s child support obligation after reviewing the following criterias for case by case:

  • The child’s needs, including health insurance, medical expenses, and special needs; 
  • Each parent’s income; 
  • Each parent’s responsibility for children from a different relationship; 
  • The custodial parent’s needs and ability to earn income, and; 
  • The child’s standard of living before the divorce or separation.

This imputed income system is in the system to make sure that some parents intentionally do not reduce their income to try and limit their child support payments. If this situation occurs, courts can impute income to show that children receive the financial support they require.

How Does Imputed Income Work For a Child Support Order?

The courts do recognize that child support may be a heavy burden for some parents trying to maintain and manage two households. But parents still cannot avoid their financial obligation to pay child support just because of financial difficulties. There must be a showing for the case that any reduction in their income was completely involuntary.

There may be some parents who intentionally reduce their own income in order to try and limit or terminate their child support payments. However, courts have developed options such as imputed income to deal with these types of unreliable parents and ensure that children are able to receive the financial support they need for food, shelter, and clothing. 

When a parent’s current earnings do not reflect the actual income or earning capacity, a judge will examine the other factors to figure out an appropriate amount of potential income, including a parent’s:

  • Historical earnings from the past 5 years; 
  • Education or vocational training; 
  • Employment history; 
  • Available employment opportunities in the community, and; 
  • Reasons for leaving a previous job. 

A judge will evaluate all the evidence and testimony based upon the request made by either parent to impute income to the other. In accordance with the stated factors, a court will assign each parent an income based on what the parent could be earning. This only applies to any parents who have been out of the workforce for a while and they may have a full-time minimum wage income imputed to them. 

Generally, when courts are deciding how much income to impute, they will need to determine what is the parent’s “earning capacity.” This means the individual income potential which is composed of the parent’s ability to work, willingness and opportunity to work.

The ability to work is usually determined by examining the parent’s educational level, work skills and employment history. Willingness to work is determined by seeing the parent’s behavior and asking questions like, is he or she actively looking for jobs, sending out resumes, or attending any interviews. Opportunity to work involves a consideration about the availability of appropriate job opportunities in the local area and a determination if there are companies in the parent’s field hiring or is there an employment slump. 

If the parent has the ability and opportunity to work, a court can determine how much to impute by reviewing evidence from examining the factors mentioned above. Court would also think about the salaries for a job that a parent would qualify for. Additionally, the court may even use the most recent salary the parent earned and impute that amount. Sometimes, if it is challenging to calculate how much that parent could make, the court will impute minimum wage. The exact amount imputed will vary and depend on the specific circumstances of each case.

Another note about how to locate any hidden assets. If for some reason the parent is hiding their earnings this would make it challenging for the court to make an assessment for the imputed income. You may want to reach out to a lawyer and consider any legal options for subpoenaing the spouse’s bank records, paytubs, or any business records to uncover any potential hidden assets. In general, child support can be based on these hidden assets and their earnings. 

When Should I Hire A Child Support Attorney?

Child support is a legal obligation of the parents. Therefore, if for some reason the parents fail to complete this legal duty, the courts will step in by imputing income to ensure the child is met with the essential needs. 

If you are struggling to make payments or if you think your child needs a modification in the child support order, you may reach out to a local child support lawyer to discuss your legal options in this situation. Depending on which state you reside in, the guidelines will vary case by case.