Calculating Child Support When the Paying Parent Is in the Military

Family support rules may be different when the paying spouse is in the military.

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Gavel and Scales

If the parent who must pay child support is in the military, it can be challenging to calculate the proper amount. This article can help you find your way.

Where to Start

To calculate a reasonable amount of child support, start with your state’s child support guidelines. If you and the other parent can’t agree on the support amount and a court hasn’t yet weighed in, you can consult military guidelines. Each branch of the military has its own guidelines for appropriate interim family support when the state hasn’t yet established a support order. Generally, however, the amounts are less than what state guidelines provide.

Be aware that it can be difficult to find information about the military’s child support guidelines. If you need to establish interim support, check with your state’s child support enforcement agency or seek help from a military Legal Assistance Office. (You can use the online legal services locator to find an office near you.)

Calculating a Service Member’s Income

Because military paychecks are unlike any other paychecks, it can be a real challenge to determine what a service member’s actual pay is. This is unfortunate given that a parent’s income is always the basis for calculating child support. To get started with your state’s child support guidelines, you’ll need to know the service member’s income as well as the amount of any payments the service member is making for the children’s health insurance or for work-related day care.

Start with the service member’s base salary. There’s also a housing allowance, calculated using location, family commitments, and the service member’s pay grade. There are also pay differentials for hazardous assignments and other variations in responsibilities. It’s possible that the service member is receiving “in-kind” compensation in the form of housing, meals, and other nonmonetary compensation.

In trying to determine the other parent’s income, don’t use a tax return, because some of the income that service members receive is tax-free, and you’ll be working with an amount that’s too low. Instead, use the Leave and Earnings Statement (LES), which is similar to a pay stub but more comprehensive. The LES will show you the service member parent’s basic pay and housing and other allowances, as well as information about how many dependents the service member is claiming and how much accrued leave is available.

The IRS doesn’t tax military housing and food allowances, but most states’ child support guidelines include all income, whether it’s taxable or not. In recent years, with many more service members on active duty, state courts have begun to weigh in on this issue. They appear to universally agree that even though allowances and in-kind compensation are nontaxable, they should be counted as income for purposes of calculating support. In-kind compensation can include onbase housing -- so if a service member lives on the base, the value of the housing can also be included.

As always when you’re dealing with the U.S. military, you may not have an easy time getting access to the information you need. In fact, you may be required to submit a Freedom of Information Act request if your spouse won’t cooperate and provide the LES. You’ll probably need an attorney’s help for this, but you also could seek assistance from a child support enforcement agency. (Links to the child support enforcement agencies for every state are available at the National Child Support Enforcement Association website.)

Excerpted from Nolo’s Essential Guide to Child Custody & Support, by Emily Doskow.

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