This article provides information on how child support is calculated in Massachusetts. If you have questions about child support, you should contact an experienced family law attorney in your area.
In Massachusetts, both parents have a duty to support their child. Typically, however, only the noncustodial (parent without primary physical custody) parent makes child support payments. The “custodial parent” is the parent who lives with and has primary care of the child. This parent remains responsible for child support too, but the law assumes that a custodial parent spends the required amount directly on the child.
The amount of support depends on a set of factors that make up the child support guidelines. Parents can agree to pay more than the guideline amount with court approval, but rarely less. In any case, a court can deviate from the guidelines and adjust the amount of support up or down if a judge determines that it is in the child’s best interest to do so.
The Massachusetts Courts website publishes child support guidelines and instructions to help you estimate your fair share of child support. To calculate support, you’ll need to know both parents’ gross incomes. For child support purposes, gross income is money received from all sources, including wages, bonuses, salary, dividends, royalties, pensions, military pay, disability and social security income.
Child support is calculated by adding up the parents’ combined incomes and splitting support proportionally between the parents. In other words, if the parents earn $6,000 and $4,000 per month, then their proportional support responsibilities will be 60% and 40%, respectively. In addition, parents must also cover a child’s health insurance, and educational costs. A court may require parents to split the costs of extracurricular activities like summer camp or private school if it’s in the child’s best interest and the parents can afford it. See Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 208 § 28 (2020).
If one parent is intentionally or voluntarily unemployed or underemployed and reports a smaller income than earned in the past, a judge can impute (assign) a higher income to that parent. Quite simply, a parent can’t avoid child support payments by failing to work.
The guidelines use different calculations depending on how the parents share custody or parenting time. There is a general formula for computing payments, but it's based on an assumption that the child has a primary residence with one parent and spends roughly one-third of the time with the other parent. If parenting time is less than one-third with the non-residential parent, the court may increase the amount of support.
Where the parents share roughly equal custody and visitation time, each parent must complete the child support worksheet to calculate their responsibility for support. The parent with the lower weekly support amount receives the difference of the two amounts. For example, if Parent A has a weekly support amount of $500 and Parent B’s weekly support amount is $400, then the difference of $100 is paid by Parent A to Parent B.
Where a parent’s minimum amount of time spent with the child is more than one-third, but less than half, the parent who has the most time (more than 50%) should complete the worksheet as the Recipient. Then you have to do the calculation again as if the parents shared equal time (as in the paragraph immediately above). The average between the base support (the first calculation) and the second, shared calculation will be the amount paid to the Recipient.
Where parents split custody, meaning, one child lives with Parent A and a second child lives with Parent B, then the calculations are the same as for sharing equal time. You can learn more about different custody and parenting arrangements in our article “Child Custody in Massachusetts”.
Once you have completed the appropriate calculation, the outcome will be an amount of support that the state presumes to be appropriate for your child. Sometimes, however, the total amount or the way it is divided is unfair. Before the order is in place, you can still ask the court to adjust the amount, but you will have to show that it is in the child’s best interest.
Courts consider the following when deciding to adjust support:
Once a child support order has been in place for more than three years, you may still be able to change it if any of the following apply:
If it has been less than three years, then a mere inconsistency between the current order and the guidelines, is not enough. The parent requesting the modification must also show a substantial change in circumstances.
Be aware, however, that if a court deviated from the guidelines in making your initial order, the reason for the deviation must still exist and, it must still be in the child’s best interest to maintain the deviation when you request the modification. Otherwise, the usual guidelines amount will result unless it would be unjust or inappropriate for other circumstances.
Also, parents who agree to a change can file a joint petition for modification of child support judgment. Unless a judge has questions or concerns about this new plan, there will not be a court hearing. The court will decide whether to modify the current order purely on the parents’ joint petition and any supporting documents.
Once you have a new or modified child support order in place, the difficult part may be collecting payments from your ex. Many parents pay on time and in full, while other parents go to extreme lengths to avoid paying support. A parent has little excuse to avoid paying support because support payments can be made in cash, by check, bank transfer, or by using a payment app, such as Venmo or Zelle, or direct deposit. If you're struggling to collect your court-ordered support, contact the Massachusetts Child Support Division for help establishing, modifying, or enforcing child support orders.