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How to Calculate Child Support Payment Amounts

Each state has guidelines for calculating child support payments to be made in accordance with the Child Support Enforcement Act. Guidelines are based upon parents’ incomes and expenses.

Child support guidelines can differ substantially from one state to the next. That can cause child support awards in neighboring states to vary considerably, even under identical situations. In addition, some states allow judges to exert a great deal of discretion in establishing child support awards, as long as the guidelines are generally followed, while other states adhere stringently to guidelines and afford judges little discretion.

Notwithstanding nuances, guidelines in most states set forth factors that must be considered to determine who pays support and how much support is paid. Courts consider these factors:

  • Needs of child (health insurance, education, day care, special needs)
  • Income and needs of custodial parent
  • Paying parent’s ability to pay support
  • Child’s standard of living before parents’ separation or divorce

The majority of states include these steps when calculating child support:

  • Deciding fair income of both parents using all different kinds of income
  • Deciding taxes and deductions
  • Combining net incomes after taxes and deductions together into a single “family pot”
  • Splitting the basic child support award so that the parent who earns the most money will likely pay the bigger share of the award
  • Making adjustments to the paying parent’s amount in shared-parenting arrangements, which considers the number of days the child spends with that parent
  • Considering add-ons and special deductions, like child care and health insurance
  • Considering poverty and shared-parenting income tests to prevent a parent from paying too much or receiving too little
  • Entering a final support order to establish legal amount of child support

Often in a divorce, before determining child support, courts require each spouse to complete a financial questionnaire that provides background information for the parent’s financial situation. The questionnaire usually requires, at a minimum, the monthly income and expenses of each spouse.

When the court sets the amount of child support, it usually does so with an order to create a built-in enforcement mechanism. As a result, the court retains power to hold a defaulting party in contempt.

When establishing child support, courts often take into account the family’s standard of living prior to separation or divorce. If possible, courts try to maintain that same standard of living for the best interests of the children. However, courts are aware of the challenges presented by maintaining two households on the income that formerly supported the family.