Child Support: How Judges Decide the Amount

Learn how child support is calculated under state guidelines, and when judges may allow support payments that are lower or higher than the guideline amount.

By , Legal Editor
Considering Divorce? We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.
First Name is required
First Name is required

If you have minor children, you and the other parent share an equal, legal responsibility to support those kids. Usually, you'll fulfill that obligation by directly providing your children with food, housing, clothing, health care, and their other basic needs. But when couples are separated or divorced, the court will get involved by ordering one parent to pay child support (usually to the custodial parent). Even if you hope to reach an agreement on the issue rather than go to trial, you'll need to know how child support is calculated.

How Child Support Is Calculated Under State Guidelines

Every state has its own guidelines for determining how much child support parents should pay. The guidelines start out with a formula for calculating a basic amount of child support. Although these formulas can be quite complicated in some states, they're all based primarily on parental income. The formulas in some states include both parents' income, while others only use the noncustodial parent's income.

What's Counted as Income in Child Support Guidelines?

The state guidelines will spell out what should be included as income in the formula. In addition to wages and salaries, gross income typically includes:

  • irregular income like bonuses and severance pay
  • self-employment and business income
  • pensions
  • interest and investment income
  • alimony, and
  • benefits like workers' compensation, social security, disability, and unemployment insurance.

The guidelines usually allow deductions from gross income for certain expenses, such as:

  • taxes
  • mandatory union dues and other required payroll deductions, and
  • support payments for children from another relationship.

When it's clear that parents are hiding income or purposefully earning less than they could in order to shirk their child support obligation, judges may calculate support based on what the parent could reasonably be earning (a practice known as "imputing income").

Other Factors in Calculating Child Support

In most states, the formulas factor in some other items, such as:

  • the amount of time the child spends with each parent
  • the cost of health insurance and uninsured medical expenses for the child
  • day care costs, and
  • the child's age.

Estimating Child Support Under the Guidelines

When you have minor children and are filing for divorce, you'll normally have to fill out and submit a form with details of your financial situation. Some states also require parents to fill out a child support worksheet, which will allow you to calculate the basic support obligation.

And if you want an estimate of the basic support amount before you start the divorce process, most states provide an online child support calculator (or "estimator"). The official state calculators should include all of the factors currently allowed under the state's guidelines.

When Child Support May Be Higher or Lower Than the Guideline Amount

The basic child support obligation, as calculated under your state's formula, won't necessarily be what you or your co-parent will actually pay. Typically, judges may order a higher or lower amount of support, but only if it would be unjust or inappropriate to apply the guideline amount.

When judges are deciding whether to allow a deviation from the guideline in any specific case, they usually must consider certain circumstances. Here again, those factors vary from state to state, but they may include items such as:

  • the child's special needs, including extraordinary medical, psychological, or educational needs
  • the standard of living that the child would have enjoyed if the parents continued to live together
  • extraordinary travel costs for transferring the child between parents who live far apart
  • a parent's lowered expenses or other benefits from living with a new spouse or partner
  • a parent's extraordinarily high income, such that the guideline amount is more than the child needs
  • a parent's extraordinarily low income or high expenses that make it impossible to pay the guideline amount of support.

Child Support Agreements and the Guidelines

Most parents come to an agreement about how much child support one of them will pay. But they'll need to submit those agreements to the court. And judges won't approve child support agreements unless they conform to the guidelines or meet the legal exceptions for deviations (described above). Certainly, judges will closely scrutinize any agreement that provides for less child support that the guideline amount, and they'll almost never approve parents' agreement for zero child support.

Getting Help With Child Support

If you're hoping to reach a complete divorce settlement agreement, so that you can benefit from the advantages of an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse should be able to calculate the amount of support under your state's guidelines. After all, the guidelines are intended to make child support more consistent, help ensure that the support amount will actually meet children's needs, and reduce court battles over the issue.

Click on your state in the list below to learn more details about how the guidelines work where you live. Also, most state courts provide online self-help centers or at least the forms you'll need, including any child support worksheets that are used in your state.

However, if you or your spouse believes that a deviation from the guideline is appropriate in your case, and you can't reach an agreement, mediation might help you resolve the dispute. Otherwise, you might need to speak with a family law attorney.

Finally, if you aren't married to your child's other parent, or you have custody of a grandchild, you can get assistance from your local child support agency. In addition to obtaining child support orders, these agencies can also help with establishing paternity, locating missing parents, and collecting support.

State Child Support Guidelines

Select your state from the list below to learn more about local child support guidelines.

Considering Divorce?
Talk to a Divorce attorney.
We've helped 85 clients find attorneys today.
There was a problem with the submission. Please refresh the page and try again
Full Name is required
Email is required
Please enter a valid Email
Phone Number is required
Please enter a valid Phone Number
Zip Code is required
Please add a valid Zip Code
Please enter a valid Case Description
Description is required

How It Works

  1. Briefly tell us about your case
  2. Provide your contact information
  3. Choose attorneys to contact you