If you are a parent going through a divorce, or if you have never been married to your child’s other parent and have decided to end the relationship, you may need information about child support. In Colorado, both parents, whether married or not, are obligated to support their children.
Colorado follows the “Income Shares Model” of support. Courts ordering support refer to the current version of the Colorado Child Support Guidelines contained in Colorado Revised Statutes §14-10-115. The guidelines approximate a total support amount that parents would spend on children in an intact family unit, and then split this amount proportionately between the parents according to their incomes. The guidelines are quite complex and detailed; this article provides only a brief overview. If you have questions about calculating child support in your case, you should contact an attorney for help.
You can estimate the amount of support a Colorado judge might order by completing one of the child support worksheets available in either manual or electronic form from the Colorado State Judicial Branch. The electronic version provides an automatic calculation but requires Microsoft Excel for operation. The manual worksheet instructions (Form JDF 1822) explain in detail how the guidelines work and how to choose and complete the appropriate worksheet for your particular situation. This form also includes the Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations that you will need to determine the basic support amount after calculating each parent’s adjusted gross income, regardless of which worksheet you use.
In general, you should choose Worksheet A – Sole Physical Care (Form JDF 1820M) when children spend no more than 92 overnights with the parent who has less physical time with the children and Worksheet B – Shared Physical Care (Form JDF 1821M) when children spend at least 93 overnights with each parent. In a split care situation, in which there is more than one child and each parent has sole physical care of at least one of the children, or the parents share care of some, but not all, children, you can determine the appropriate support amount by completing separate worksheets for each parent and then subtracting the lower obligation from the higher obligation to obtain a net amount that one parent will pay to the other.
The worksheets differ mainly in the way each provides for adjustments to support amounts based on parenting time. Under the Sole Physical Care calculation, courts assume that the primary parent will spend the calculated support amount directly on the child, so the support amount calculated for the other parent establishes the level of child support. Under the Shared Physical Care calculation, courts adjust each parent’s share of child support according to the amount of time the parent spends with the children.
Colorado guideline child support is based on each parent’s adjusted gross income and the amount of time each parent spends with a child. Adjusted gross income is discussed below—it isn’t the same thing as adjusted gross income for tax purposes; you will have to calculate the amount carefully according the guidelines.
Once you have an adjusted gross income for each parent, and a total adjusted gross income for both parents together, you will need to consult the Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations Schedule (contained in Form JDF 1822) for the basic support obligation, and then go back to the worksheets to figure out how to divide the obligation between the parents based on income and time share, as well as how to correctly allocate any additional expenses.
Gross income includes most types of earned or unearned income. Common examples are wages, commissions, self-employment income, bonuses, dividend or interest income, rent, worker’s compensation or unemployment insurance benefits, and pensions or retirement benefits. Gross income does not include child support received for children from other relationships or public assistance, but it does include significant work-related benefits that reduce personal living expenses—such as housing, meals, or a car.
A parent receiving alimony (spousal maintenance) must add the amount received to gross income. A parent paying either alimony or court-ordered support for children of other relationships can deduct the amounts paid. Parents can also deduct a support amount for natural or adopted children of other relationships who are living in the parent’s household. The deductible amount will be 75% of the amount listed in the schedule of basic support obligations for the appropriate number of children, based only on the responsible parent’s gross income, without any adjustments.
Each worksheet also provides for the addition of certain predictable and recurring expenses after calculation of the basic support obligation. Additional expenses generally include the cost (after applicable tax credits) of necessary work-related child care, the cost of adding a child to a health insurance policy, any predictable uninsured health care expenses exceeding $250 per child per year, and any additional court-ordered expenses such as private school tuition, expenses of special needs or gifted children, or the cost of transportation for visitation. These additional expenses are shared by the parents in proportion to their incomes, without any adjustments for the amount of parenting time.
A judge who finds that either parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed may estimate the parent’s potential earning capacity in light of factors such as work history, training, education, and available jobs in the area, and may calculate child support based on such income, or based on minimum wage in the absence of evidence of earning capacity. A court will not ordinarily impute income to a physically or mentally incapacitated parent, to a parent caring for a child of both parents who is under the age of 30 months, to a parent who will be incarcerated for a year or longer, or to a parent making a career change that is expected to result in higher income within a reasonable period of time.
In Colorado the child support obligation continues until the end of the month that a child who has finished high school turns 18, or until the end of the month that a full-time high school student turns 19. A court will modify a child support order only if there has been a material and ongoing change in circumstances—for example, if one parent has gotten a much higher paying job or has substantially changed the amount of time spent with a child.
The guidelines apply to all temporary and permanent child support orders and to all modifications of child support. Colorado courts begin by assuming that amounts calculated according to the guidelines are fair, but a court may use discretion and order a different amount where application of the guidelines would be unfair to a child or to one of the parents. A court must provide a written or oral explanation of the facts supporting any deviation.
The Colorado Child Support Enforcement Program of the Colorado Department of Human Services, is responsible for helping parents obtain and enforce child support orders, including locating absent parents and establishing paternity, if necessary. More information is available on their website.