Child support is a court order for a certain amount of money divorced or separated parents must pay each month to help cover their children's living expenses. In California, the law sets out specific guidelines that courts must follow when determining how much child support parents must pay. Under these guidelines, the court will consider factors such as each parent's income, the number of children, and the percentage of time each parent spends with the children (also called “timeshare”). Courts will generally use a computer program that incorporates these factors to calculate child support.
This article answers some Frequently Asked Questions regarding child support, including how it's determined, some of the exceptions to the guidelines, how long a parent’s duty to pay child support lasts in California, and where to get help. If you have specific questions about your child support case, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.
How does the court determine income in order to calculate child support?
Each parent's net disposable income is used to calculate child support. To figure out net disposable income, the court will first determine gross annual income, subtract certain deductions, and divide that by 12 for the monthly amount.
For the purposes of child support, gross income includes:
- Income from all sources including salary and wages, bonuses, commissions, rental income, dividends, interest, pensions, annuities, royalties, trust income, disability insurance benefits, workers compensation benefits, unemployment insurance benefits, social security benefits, and spousal support received from a person who is not the other parent in the child support action;
- Income from ownership of a business; and
- Employment or self-employment benefits, if the court finds it appropriate to consider these benefits.
Gross income does not include need-based public assistance benefits (such as CalWORKS, General Assistance, or Supplemental Security Income) or child support that one parent actually receives.
After computing the gross income, the court will deduct the following to determine net income:
- State and federal tax obligations
- Mandatory union dues
- Necessary job-related expenses
- Health insurance premiums, and
- Hardships such as extraordinary health expenses, uninsured catastrophic losses, and basic living expenses for children from other relationships.
What if the other parent isn’t working and has no income?
Sometimes, parents try to avoid child support by becoming unemployed or underemployed. Courts don't like this behavior. If a court finds that a parent has done this, a judge may "impute" income to that parent. In order words, the court will consider the earning ability of the other parent and use the amount of income he or she could earn instead of the money they actually earn, to calculate child support. To assign income that the parent is not actually earning, the court will need to find that the parent has the ability and opportunity to work. In other words, before imputing income, the court will need proof that there are available jobs for which the parent is qualified.
How is timeshare determined?
Timeshare is the amount of time each parent has primary responsibility for the children. To account for the time when the children are in school or daycare, the court will determine which parent has primary responsibility by considering factors such as who picks up the children if they get sick, who provides transportation to and from school, who pays education costs, and who attends school functions. Because parents often share in these responsibilities, determining timeshare is not always straightforward, and the court has discretion to calculate the percentage based on how involved each parent is.
Once incomes and timeshare are determined, how does the court calculate child support?
The law sets out a somewhat complicated math formula to calculate child support. Courts will frequently use a computer program which does the calculation. You can find the program by clicking here. Note that while you can use this link to estimate your child support, the court’s calculation may be different because there are many factors that go into the calculation.
Does the court have to order the amount calculated under the guideline?
Not necessarily. In some cases, the court has the discretion to order a child support amount that is different from the calculated guideline amount.
First, the court can make a low-income adjustment by ordering a lower amount of child support if a parent’s net disposable income is less than $1000, unless it would be unfair or inappropriate to do so under the circumstances.
Second, the court has discretion to make an order above or below guideline if it is in the best interest of the children. Some examples of situations where the court may order an amount other than guideline are:
- One parent has an extraordinarily high income and the guideline amount would exceed the children’s needs.
- One parent is not contributing to the children’s needs at a level that is appropriate considering the amount of time the parent spends with children.
- The parents spend nearly equal time with the children and one parent uses a much higher or lower percentage of income on housing.
- The children have special medical or other needs requiring a greater amount of support.
Anytime the court makes an order above or below guideline, it must explain the reasons for not following the guideline.
Can I get additional support for the children's expenses that the guideline amount does not cover?
There are certain child-related expenses that courts can add on to the basic guideline child support calculation.The law requires that the court must add on expenses for uninsured health care and for child care used for employment purposes or to attend training necessary for employment.
The court also has the discretion add on expenses for the children’s education or special needs and for travel expenses related to visitation.
In general, the court will split these additional expenses between the parents equally. However, if there is a significant difference in the parents’ incomes, the court may order that each parent pays an amount in proportion to their income.
Can parents agree to their own child support order?
Yes, parents can make their own agreement for child support and submit it to the court for review and approval. The agreement must state the following:
- The parents know their rights
- They were not forced to enter the agreement
- The agreement is in the children’s best interest
- The children’s needs will be met by the agreement, and
- The parents are not receiving public assistance and they have not applied for public assistance.
How long do child support orders last?
In general, parents have a duty to pay child support until their children are 18 years old. There are some exceptions:
- The duty to pay support ends when a child is legally emancipated. A child is emancipated if they enter a valid marriage, obtain a declaration of emancipation from a court, or enter active military duty.
- If the child is 18 years old, a full-time high school student, and not self-supporting, the duty to pay child support extends until the child is 19 years old or completes 12th grade, whichever is sooner.
- To the extent they are able, both parents have a duty to support a child of any age who is incapacitated from earning a living and doesn’t have sufficient means to live.
- Parents can agree to a child support order that extends longer than what is required under the law.
Can I change a child support order?
Either parent can ask the court to modify a child support order if there has been a change of circumstances, such as an increase or decrease in income or a change in timeshare. If the parents had an agreement to child support that was below the guideline amount, the court can modify it without a change of circumstances. If the parents' agreement is above the guideline, there does need to be a change of circumstances to modify it to a lesser amount.
Where can I find help with my child support case?
Whether you are asking for child support or responding to a request for child support, there are resources available for help with your case. Each county has a family law facilitator’s office where you may be able to get help with your paperwork. Click here for information on the family law facilitator in your county: http://www.courts.ca.gov/selfhelp-facilitators.htm. Your local Department of Child Support Services office can also help you. Click here for locations: http://www.childsup.ca.gov/Home/LCSAOffices.aspx).
California child support laws can be found in the California Family Code Sections 4050-4076.