Child support is a payment from one parent to the other to help cover the costs of raising a child. The parent who cares for a child most of the time (called the custodial parent) tends to receive the child support payments. This is because the law assumes that the custodial parent already spends money directly on the child. The parent with less parenting time (called the non-custodial parent) usually makes the payments.
Typically, parents must pay child support until the child is 18. There are some exceptions, however. Support may continue until the age of 21 if the child is still in school. The support period could be shorter if the child marries, joins the military, or otherwise becomes self-supporting. On the other hand, a child with a mental or physical incapacity could receive support for as long as necessary.
The payment amount depends on a handful of factors, like the number of children and the income of both parents, among other things. To help you estimate your fair share of support, the Missouri courts provide a child support calculator based on the Missouri child support guidelines. A glimpse at the guidelines by themselves can give you an idea of how much child support is due, but there are other criteria, explained below, that make for more accurate calculation.
The guidelines are simply a fee schedule. Parents may agree to pay more than the amount given by the guidelines, but not less. Although a court presumes that the number given by the guidelines is the appropriate amount of child support, there are circumstances where that result would be unjust. In those cases, a court can adjust the payment up or down. Some common reasons for deviating from the guidelines have to do with travel costs if the distance between parents is substantial, or there are extraordinary expenses for educational or medical needs. In situations like these, a court has discretion to order an amount it finds reasonable or necessary.
Missouri’s child support calculator is a form - Form No. 14 Child Support Amount Calculation Worksheet – that you fill in with information on both parents’ incomes, support costs (meaning, payments already made for this child or financial obligations for the care of other children), maintenance (alimony) paid or received, percent of custody, and other expenses involved in raising the child. You can compute the amounts yourself or you can use an on-line calculator to help you with the math.
For child support purposes, gross income generally includes salaries, wages, tips, and commissions, but also pensions and retirement plans. Even without employment, chances are a parent still has income in the form of social security benefits or unemployment compensation. Among other things, income may also include alimony received from a previous marriage, veteran’s benefits, and capital gains on investments. Gifts and prizes, like lottery winnings, count too.
Also, a deadbeat parent can’t avoid paying child support by refusing to work, or even working less. Where a parent is willfully unemployed or underemployed, a court can "impute" income, meaning, come up with an amount that this parent should be making, based on factors like employment history, education, and training. The state’s intent is to hold this parent accountable, not punish the parent who stayed home with young children. For example, no income will be imputed to a parent without work history and a child in the home under six.
Additionally, you will need to input reasonable child-care costs, health insurance and medical care payments for the child, and perhaps extraordinary expenses. Extraordinary expenses could be money for private school or even things like drum or gymnastics lessons.
Once you have completed the form or on-line calculator, you will have an estimated amount of child support based on the guidelines. A court could still increase or decrease this number, however, if sticking to the guidelines leads to an unfair result.
If you have a good reason why support payments should be increased or decreased from the guideline recommendation, then you can ask a court before it issues a final order to adjust it. A court will only deviate from the guidelines after considering all factors relevant to the child’s care and wellbeing especially:
Once a child support order is in place, you can still ask the court to increase or decrease the payment amount, but it involves a different process.
A court can modify (change) a child support order that is already in place if either parent experiences a change in circumstances so substantial that continuing payments would be unreasonable. These situations tend to come up when a parent loses a job. Yet unemployment alone may not be enough to modify support, especially if a parent has remarried. The court reviews both parents’ financial resources, including the contributions of a new spouse or partner, when considering the reasonableness of child support payments. It will also evaluate the earning capacity of the unemployed parent (meaning how much that parent could earn based on education, skills, job history and employment opportunities), not merely the lost wages.
For more on applying for, paying, and enforcement of child support in Missouri, see the Missouri Social Services website.
There are helpful answers to some FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) in the Child Support in Missouri brochure, which is published by the Missouri Bar Association.