If you are a parent going through a divorce, or if you have never been married to your child’s other parent and are now separating, you may need information about child support. Both parents, whether married or not, have a legal duty to support their children financially. Alabama, like most states, has very specific rules for determining the financial responsibilities of single, separated, or divorced parents and for ensuring that parents pay support. These rules can be fairly complicated. If you find yourself having trouble wading through all of the forms and calculations, you should contact an attorney for help.
Alabama courts ordering child support follow the “Income Shares Model.” This model estimates the total amount that an intact two-parent family would likely spend on the children, and then splits the amount proportionately between the parents according to their incomes – the parent with greater income is responsible for a greater percentage of support. The basic support amounts and the rules for dividing amounts between parents are set out in the Alabama Child Support Guidelines. See Rule 32 of the Alabama Rules of Judicial Administration and the attached forms and schedules, including the Child-Support-Obligation Income Statement/Affidavit (Form CS- 41), Child-Support Guidelines worksheet (Form CS-42) and Basic Child-Support Obligation Schedule.
If you and your child’s other parent have a parenting arrangement where one of you has sole physical custody and the other is a noncustodial parent with a fairly standard visitation schedule (alternating weekends, some holidays and some uninterrupted period of time during the summer), you can estimate the noncustodial parent’s child support obligation by completing Forms CS-41 and CS-42. (Only the noncustodial parent pays support because courts presume that the custodial parent's share is already going toward the direct costs of raising children.) The first step is to determine each parent’s monthly gross income. Gross income generally includes all income, regardless of the source. See Form CS-41 for the official definition of income. A few items are excluded from income, such as public assistance benefits and child support received for children from other relationships. A parent paying court-ordered child support or alimony from other relationships can subtract those payments from gross income to get an adjusted gross income.
To figure out the basic child support figure, you’ll have to add both parents’ adjusted gross incomes together, and match the total amount with the column containing the applicable number of children in the Basic Child-Support Obligation Schedule. For example, if the total adjusted gross income is $4,000, the basic child support amount for one child would be $685 according to the schedule.
Next, to determine each parent’s percentage share of the support amount ($685) you’ll divide each parent’s income by the total combined income. For example, if the noncustodial parent earns $1,200 a month, and the custodial parent earns $2,800 a month, the noncustodial parent would be responsible for 30% of the $685 support amount (1,200 divided by 4,000) and the custodial parent for 70% of the $685 support amount (2,800 divided by 4,000).
Before applying these percentages to the basic child support amount, a court will add child care costs that either parent has to pay in order to work, as well as the cost of health insurance for the children. So, continuing with the example above, if health insurance for one child is $150 per month and the custodial parent spends $350 per month for work-related child care, the total support obligation would be $1,185 ($685 + $150 + $350 = $1,185). This total multiplied by 30% is $355.50, which is what the noncustodial parent would pay to the custodial parent each month.
In certain situations, courts may decide not to follow the guideline amount of child support according to the schedules mentioned above. For example, if you have joint physical custody, or any parenting arrangement where both parents spend significantly more than the standard amount of visitation time with the children, the guideline calculation will only give you a starting point. Alabama law does not provide for a standard method of adjusting child support in such situations, but courts typically deviate from the guidelines to take the noncustodial parent’s increased parenting time into account. Because there are so many possible variations in custody arrangements, trial judges retain discretion (authority) to determine the proper amount of child support on a case by case basis when strict application of the guidelines would be unfair or inappropriate. Courts may also make adjustments where parents have either a very low or a very high income. A court that orders support in an amount that differs from the guideline amount must specify the reasons for doing so in writing.
Sadly, some parents try to avoid their child support obligation by quitting a job or failing to conduct an adequate job search. For example, one parent might quit a good paying, highly-skilled job to take a low paying position under the mistaken belief that this will relieve them of their child support payments. Courts are not likely to tolerate this behavior. If a court finds that either parent voluntarily became unemployed (or underemployed) the court will estimate the income that parent could earn with reasonable efforts, and will calculate child support based on that amount (not the lower wages). The court will look at the parent's recent work history, education, and occupational qualifications, and will also take into account the existing job opportunities and earning levels in the community.
Once a court has made an initial child support order, a parent who wants to modify (change) the support order must show a substantial and ongoing change in circumstances. Some examples of changes that might justify modification would be one parent’s getting a much higher paying job or the parents making a permanent change in the number of days per week that each of them spends with a child. Courts will generally presume that a modification is appropriate if the difference between an existing award and the amount determined by a new analysis and application of the current guidelines varies by more than 10%. This isn’t automatic, however, and even a 10% variation won’t justify a change in the support order in every situation.
Child support in Alabama usually terminates when a child reaches the age of 19, unless a court determines a child to be emancipated before that age.
The Child Support Enforcement Division of the Alabama Department of Human Resources (CSED) is responsible for helping families obtain child support payment orders, locate absent parents, establish paternity if necessary, and secure compliance with child support court orders. If your child’s other parent has stopped making child support payments, or isn’t making full payments on time, you should contact a lawyer or the CSED for assistance in enforcing the child support order.