How Is Child Support Calculated?
How child support payments are calculated and what factors affect the process.
What factors affect child support?
The calculation of child support payments varies by state, but some similarities are implemented across the country. Several factors that are commonly taken into consideration for basic child support obligations include:
- The number of children being supported as part of the calculation
- The number of children being supported who are not subject to this calculation but are born to or adopted by one or both parents
- How much time each parent spends with the child
- The child’s age
- Each parent’s gross monthly income
- Childcare expenses
- Health insurance expenses
Occasionally, judges will consider other circumstances to allow a deviation from the recommended guidelines for child support payments. Even with variations in guideline amounts, a judge’s decision must meet the guidelines or legal exceptions. Payments that are higher or lower than the guideline amount can be recommended in situations where:
- A child requires additional accommodations for special medical, psychological, or educational needs
- A child would experience a significant change in their standard of living between their parents’ homes
- Parents who live far apart would need to cover substantial travel costs for custody exchanges
- A parent has lowered expenses or benefits from living with a new partner or spouse
- A parent has an extraordinarily high income that is well above their respective state’s guideline amount
- A parent has a significantly lower income or increased expenses that make paying the guideline amount impossible
In general, there are three different models that states use to calculate child support payments: the income shares model, the percentage of income model, and the Melson Formula. The income shares model is the most common, but the court can use any method it feels is best, even if it differs from the state’s model.
While many online calculator tools can help calculate child support expenses, they may not be entirely accurate because every court will interpret the rules differently, and every family’s situation is unique. There are also items that online calculators don’t consider, like specialized healthcare or educational needs. A judge has the power to incorporate these additional needs and other influential factors into a child support calculation.
What are the different child support calculation models?
Income shares model
In the income shares model, the state adds your and the other parent’s gross incomes to determine the total available for your child. Child support payment amounts are based on the amount you contribute to that total.
For example, if you make $25,000 a year and your spouse makes $50,000 a year, you make $75,000 together. Your income is 33% of the $75,000, and your spouse’s is 67% of the $75,000. Based on how the total income is proportionally covered, you would pay 33% of your child’s food, shelter, clothing, and other expenses, and your spouse would pay 67%.
In this model of calculating child support, the amount of time each parent spends with the child is not considered, no matter what percentage of the time either of you has custody. This model is the most commonly used in U.S. legal systems: 41 states, Guam, and the Virgin Islands use it to determine child support payments.
Percentage of income model
In the percentage of income model, the noncustodial parent must pay child support equal to a specific portion of his or her income. There are two versions of this model: flat and varying. The flat version allocates the same percentage of a parent’s income regardless of their income bracket. The varying version accounts for a parent’s income bracket and adjusts payments accordingly, and it is used in six states.
For example, if you make $50,000 a year, and the income owed to child support in your state is 25% for one child, you will pay $12,500 a year in child support. If that state follows the flat model, it will not consider your income bracket and maintain the guideline. If your state follows the varying model, your child support payments may be reduced if your income is considered too low to support that 25% allocation.
Developed by a family court in Delaware, the Melson Formula is similar to the income shares model but is more complicated. In addition to looking at each parent’s income to determine child support, the Melson Formula ensures that the basic needs of both parents are met in addition to those of the child. In addition to notating typical deductions like income taxes, parents may dictate other expenses impacting their ability to pay child support. This model is only used in three states but can be applied in any state if a judge deems it the best method for a specific case.
Is child support always ordered?
If you and your co-parent earn almost the same income, neither of you may have to pay child support since you can cover expenses evenly. If you and your spouse can work together amicably to pursue an uncontested divorce, you can negotiate your child support payments independently of the court as part of your parenting plan. For co-parents who struggle to collaborate and wish to avoid going to court, working with a mediator or arbitrator can be a successful approach that bypasses litigation. Once you create and agree on a plan, a judge will review and approve it to finalize the custody agreement.
Whether you go to court or determine child support payments independently, it’s best to consult an experienced family law attorney in your area to learn more about how the process works. Because of the variation in laws by state, your case can benefit significantly from the knowledge and experience that an attorney offers.
Once your plan is finalized and payment amounts are set, TalkingParents can help you manage and track child support contributions through Accountable Payments. Every request and completed payment comes with a timestamp that cannot be edited, giving each co-parent a clear view of when child support payments are made. Every payment can also be viewed on an Unalterable Record that can be used in court, so co-parents who need to enforce child support can have peace of mind knowing every requested, completed, and denied payment is documented as evidence.