Both Parents are Responsible for Child Support
In Tennessee, both parents - whether married to one another or not - must financially support their children. The amount of support depends on the number of children, the combined income of both parents, and parenting time.
The parent who cares for the child most of the time (called the primary residential parent or custodial parent) tends to receive the child support payments because the law assumes this parent spends money directly on the child. The parent with less time (called the alternate residential parent or non-custodial parent) typically makes the payments.
You can estimate your fair share of support by using the state’s child support guidelines. The guidelines are simply a fee schedule. Parents are free to pay more than the amount given by the guidelines, but not less. In any event, a court must approve the final amount. Although a court presumes that the number given by the guidelines is the appropriate amount of child support, there are circumstances where the result would be unfair or inappropriate. In those cases, a court may adjust the amount of support either up or down.
Estimating Child Support Payments
To estimate child support payments in Tennessee, you first need to know each parent's adjusted gross income (AGI). To calculate adjusted gross income, take all income from all sources and then subtract any deductions that may apply.
For child support purposes, income 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 also includes alimony received from previous marriages and capital gains on investments. Gifts and prizes, like lottery winnings, count too.
For a list of what to include in your calculations, see Rule 1240-2-4-.04 of the Tennessee Department of Human Services, Child Support Division’s Rules for Child Support Guidelines (referred to as “the Guidelines Rules” below).
Also, it’s a bad idea not to work or to work less to avoid paying child support. When 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 employment history, education, and training.The state’s intent is to hold the deadbeat parent accountable, not punish the parent who stays home with young children. It’s possible, however, that a parent who has a degree and established career in astrophysics, for example, but insists on staying home to raise an independent and well-adjusted 17-year-old, may have some explaining to do.
Once you have all income for each parent, check for deductions. These are social security benefits collected by the parent on the child’s behalf, self-employment taxes paid, and any credits earned for actually supporting other children. You can find out how much a credit reduces a parent’s total income by using one of the state’s credit worksheets, which you can find within the Guideline Rules under Rule 1240-2-4-.08. After taking these deductions (if they apply), you are left with each parent’s AGI.
Next, add the parents’ AGIs together and look to the child support schedule to get your basic child support obligation. This number is the total amount of child support that the parents must divide between themselves. Generally, each parent covers a proportionate share of support based on how much each contributed to the combined AGI. This amount, however, may be adjusted by parenting time.
For a simple example, say Parent A provides $1,200 a month and Parent B has $2,650. Taken together, their combined AGI is $3,850. For two kids, the basic child support obligation for $3,850 is $1,000 a month. Parent A contributed to 31% of the total income ($1,200 is 31% of $3,850), so this parent is responsible for $310 (31% of $1,000) of the basic child support obligation while Parent B must make up the difference.
This becomes slightly more complicated in situations where parenting time is different for separate children. Say, the older child lives mostly with Parent A while the younger child lives mostly with Parent B. In those cases, a parenting-time adjustment may either reduce or increase the amount of the alternative residential parent. A parenting-time adjustment may also apply in some equal parenting (50/50) situations. See the Guideline Rules for more information, especially Rule 1240-2-4-.08.
Finally, the parents must share the cost of the child’s health insurance premiums or recurring medical care, as well as work-related childcare expenses. This amount must divided in the same way as the basic child support obligation – each parent covers a proportionate share based on individual income – and then tacked on to the support total that each parent is obligated to pay.
Changing the Amount of Child Support
A court will presume that the amount given by the guidelines with adjustments for parenting time and health expenses is the right amount to support your child. Yet sometimes, the total amount or the way that number is divided between the parents is unfair. If you have a good reason why support payments should be increased or decreased, then you can ask a court to change the amount before it issues a final order. A court will only deviate from the guidelines, however, if you can show both that the amount would be unjust or inappropriate and that changing it is in the best interests of the child.
Although there are no hard and fast rules to measure the fairness of a child support payment, some common reasons for adjustment have to do with travel costs if the distance between parents is substantial, or extraordinary expenses having to do with education or medical needs. In these situations, a court has broad discretion to do what it thinks is best for your particular case. You can read more about this in the Guideline Rules under rule 1240-2-4-.07.
Modifying the Amount After Final Order
Once a child support order is in place, a court can modify (change) it under certain circumstances. If a parent’s income has changed significantly – by 15% in most cases – then the child support payments will be increased or decreased as necessary. This type of situation tends to come up when a parent loses a job, but it could also happen with a big promotion. Likewise, a substantial and material change in custody or the paying parent’s need to support a new baby is usually enough to modify an order. A child’s need for health care could also change the amount of support.
Your best resource for information on child support in Tennessee is the state’s Department of Human Services, Child Support Division, which provides worksheetsand an on-line calculator to help streamline the process. Here too, are the guidelines, the Guideline Rules, and the rules for review and adjustment of child support orders. You can read the law on child support in the Tennessee Code Annotated 36-5-101, but you may have to visit your local library to access this information.