In Montana, both parents must financially support a child. Child support payments are designed to meet a child’s financial needs. The amount of child support ordered in your case will depend on each parent’s income, the number of children involved, the parents’ custody arrangement, and the child’s extraordinary needs, if any.
Typically, a non-custodial parent (parent who spends less than 50 percent of the time with thee child) is the only parent ordered to pay support. The law presumes that a custodial parent (parent who lives with the child the majority of the time) spends money directly on the child’s needs. In split or joint custody situations, a judge may order both parents to pay support or may not order child support at all. Ultimately, any child support award must serve a child’s best interests.
Montana has established state child support guidelines to streamline the process of calculating support. The state sets a base support amount according to the child support guidelines. Under the guidelines, a parent can estimate his or her support obligation. However, a judge can adjust the final amount of support up or down according to the child’s needs.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services provides worksheets and instructions to walk you through the child support process. When applying for child support, you will need to collect a stack of financial information to complete your request (or respond to one).
You can start the process by filling out a financial affidavit. A “financial affidavit” is a form you use to explain your income and other assets, as well as your debts or obligations. The financial affidavit includes tax and insurance information, alimony payments made, expenses involved in caring for all of your children, your income and assets, among other things.
Income includes payments, earnings, and benefits received from all sources. Specifically, a parent’s income includes his or her salary, wages, royalties, rents, bonuses and commissions, military pay, pension, and severance pay. Even if you are unemployed, chances are you still have income for child support purposes in the form of social security, workers’ compensation, unemployment, or disability benefits. Spousal support received counts too, and in some cases, a court could even impute income based on the value of assets like a vacation home or a car.
You can exclude some items from child support such as the money a new spouse brings in, SSI, food stamps (SNAP), adoption subsidies, and any means-tested veteran’s benefits or public assistance benefits.
If you think you can reduce your child support payments by working less or not at all, think again. A court can impute, or assign a higher income to a parent based on the parent’s work history and employment opportunities.
Once you have worked through the worksheets, the outcome will be an amount of support that the state presumes to be adequate and reasonable for your child. Sometimes, however, the total amount or the way it is divided is unfair to a parent or the child. Before a child support order is in place, either parent can ask to adjust the amount of support. Where a parent provides clear and convincing evidence that the amount would be unjust (this is called rebutting the presumption), the court will either increase or decrease the amount of support based on the following factors:
Once a child support order is in place, you must wait 12 months before you can ask the court to change (modify) it. An exception to this rule applies if the order did not include the child’s medical care; that can be added at any time.
To justify a modification, you will need written agreement by both parents or will have to show a substantial and continuing change in circumstances that makes it too difficult for you to make payments at the current rate. A common change in circumstance is the loss of a job.
A court can’t retroactively apply a modification, however. So even if a parent loses a job, for example, payments continue at the current (ordered) rate until a court changes it, and then the change applies only to payments going forward. See Mont. Code Ann. § 40-5-417 (2020).
The terms of your child support order will likely specify when and how child support payments should be made. If your order is not specific, child support payments can be made via cash, by check, bank transfer, direct deposits, or payment apps such as Venmo or Zelle. If you’re struggling with a deadbeat parent’s refusal to pay court-ordered child support, contact the Montana Child Support Enforcement Division for help at 1-800-346-KIDS.
Child support payments terminate when the child becomes emancipated, when the child graduate from high school, or turns 19, whichever occurs later. Parents may extend child support for a longer period by written agreement. A court may order payments for a longer period of time based on the child’s needs.
In addition to the links above, you can learn more about issues related to child support in our section Montana Divorce and Family Law.