Montana, like all other U.S. states, has guidelines for calculating the amount of child support that divorced or separated parents must pay. These guidelines are meant to provide judges, parents, and state agencies with a consistent method for calculating support. They're also aimed at ensuring—as much as possible—that children's living standards don't fall just because their parents are no longer living together.
The calculations are complicated and can be daunting at first. The state does provide worksheets and instructions. But before you dive in, it helps to have a basic understanding of how Montana's child support guidelines work.
Both parents are legally required to support their children financially. In a typical custody (or "parenting") arrangement after divorce, children live most of the time with one parent (the "custodial parent"), and the noncustodial parent pays child support. But that doesn't mean custodial parents aren't paying their fair share. The guidelines work on the assumption that these parents meet their support obligation by paying directly for the children's daily expenses, such as food, clothing, and housing.
Each parent's share of the overall support obligation is primarily based on their proportionate share of their combined incomes. Their specific parenting arrangements and other circumstances may also factor into the support amount (more on those adjustments below).
Under Montana's child support guidelines, a parent's actual income includes "economic benefits" from a wide range of sources, including wages, tips, Social Security retirement benefits, pension and retirement distributions, alimony, net self-employment or business income, unemployment benefits, workers' compensation, and disability benefits.
Unless it would be inappropriate to do so, the guidelines also provide that the net value of a parent's assets may be considered for child support.
(Mont. Admin. R., rule 37.62.105 (2024).)
The guidelines list a number of items that aren't included in income for purposes of child support, including:
(Mont. Admin. R., rule 37.62.105 (2024).)
For purposes of the child support calculation, you may deduct certain items from your actual income, including:
Note that the deductions from income in Montana's child support guidelines are not the same as for federal income tax. (You can see the full list at Mont. Admin. R., rules 37.62.110, 37.62.111 (2024).)
Montana's guidelines presume that all parents are capable of working at least 40 hours per week at minimum wage, unless there's evidence that they can't. As a general rule, judges may impute (assign) additional income to a parent who:
However, the guidelines don't allow imputing income when it would be unfair under the circumstances, including when:
When it's appropriate to impute income, the judge will base the amount on the relevant circumstances, including:
(Mont. Admin. R., rule 37.62.106 (2024).)
Montana's guidelines include a "personal allowance" (sometimes known as a self-support reserve) that's meant as a contribution toward the parents' own subsistence needs. The allowance is subtracted from income to result in "income available for support."
The guidelines also include several other adjustments to the amount of child support, including adjustments to account for:
Montana presumes that the amount of support calculated under the guidelines is adequate for the child's needs. But parents may overcome that presumption with evidence showing why the guideline amount would be unfair or inappropriate under the circumstances. When judges are deciding whether a deviation from the guidelines is warranted and in a child's best interests, they must consider all of the relevant factors, including:
The guidelines also include specific requirements when parents agree to an amount of child support that deviates from the guidelines (as discussed below).
Parents always have the option of agreeing on a child support amount. In fact, that's what happens more often than not. However, parents may not agree to an amount of support that differs from what's calculated under the guidelines, unless all of the following is true:
(Mont. Admin. R., rule 37.62.102 (2024).)
In Montana, child support usually ends when the child turns 18 (or is otherwise emancipated) or graduates from high school, whichever happens later. However, support will end on the child's 19th birthday regardless of high school graduation—unless a judge has ordered otherwise or the parents have agreed to continue support beyond then.
Also, whenever the custodial parent is the primary caregiver for an adult child who's dependent because of a disability, child support won't end until a judge finds that the child is no longer disabled or financially dependent on the custodial parent. The child's eligibility for government benefits could factor into that decision.
When the parent who's paying child support dies, the provisions in the support order don't automatically end. To the extent that it's appropriate and fair under the circumstances, the judge may revoke the support obligation, modify the amount of support, or change it to a lump-sum payment (which could presumably come out of the deceased parent's estate).
(Mont. Code § 40-4-208 (2024).)
If you aren't married to the child's other parent, you can apply for child support by enrolling for services from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services Child Support Services Division (CSSD). The CSSD can also help with collecting and enforcing existing child support orders in Montana.
If you want to request a change in the amount of child support you're currently paying or receiving, you may file a modification request with the court. Unless you and your coparent agree to the change (or the custodial parent is receiving public assistance), a judge in Montana will grant a modification request only if you prove that:
It will be up to the judge to decide whether it would be unconscionable to continue the existing support order, but you'll need to provide specific evidence of the changed financial needs and resources of both the parents and the child. (Mont. Code § 40-4-208(2)(b) (2024); In re Marriage of West, 692 P.2d 1213 (Mont. 1984).)
However, if your existing support order doesn't include an order for medical support, or if a parent has violated an existing medical support order, that will qualify for an immediate modification specifically to correct that issue. (Mont. Code § 40-4-208(2)(c) (2024).)
You may also ask the CSSD to review your existing child support order to see if you qualify for an adjustment in the amount under the guidelines. You won't need to demonstrate a change in circumstances if it's been at least three years since the existing order was issued or since the last review. If it's been less than 36 months, however, you will need to show that there's been a significant change of circumstances, such as
In and of itself, a parent's remarriage won't qualify for a change in the amount of child support. As mentioned above, Montana's guidelines specifically exclude a new spouse's income from the amount of income a parent has available for child support.
That said, when deciding whether the circumstances have changed enough to make the current amount of support unconscionable, a judge will look at the totality of both parents' needs and ability to pay support, along with the children's changed needs. That total picture might include changes related to a parent's new family, such as when a parent has to support children with a new spouse. And if the children's needs have increased or the custodial parent's income has decreased (or both), the fact that the noncustodial parent has greater financial resources because of a remarriage could potentially play a role in the judge's decision.
The CSSD provides online information about Montana's child support guidelines, including links to download the worksheets, instructions, and other forms you'll need. If you have questions, you can contact the CSSD office in your region. Montana Law Help also offers an FAQ on child and medical support orders in Montana.
Even with these resources, it can still be confusing and stressful to deal with child support calculations. That's why some people opt to consult with a family law attorney, even if it's only regarding this one issue. This is especially true if one parent wants a support order that differs from the guideline amount or wants a modification based on changed circumstances.