Child Support in D.C.

Learn how to calculate child support in D.C., how to collect or change support payments, when child support ends, and more.

By , Retired Judge

The District of Columbia has enacted child support guidelines meant to provide consistency when judges or parents are calculating support. D.C. provides online tools to help (more on that below). But before you jump in, it will help to understand how the guidelines work, what goes into the calculation, and exceptions to the standard formula.

Who Pays Child Support in D.C.?

When parents are divorced, legally separated, or were never married to each other, the parent who has the kids most of the time (the "custodial" parent) typically receives child support payments from the noncustodial parent—regardless of gender.

But that doesn't change the fact that both parents are legally required to support their children. Nor does it mean custodial parents aren't paying their fair share. The guidelines assume those parents are meeting their obligation by covering the day-to-day expenses of sheltering and caring for the children.

Here's how it works: D.C. provides a schedule showing the basic child support obligation, depending on the parents' combined incomes and how many children they have. Each parent's share of that obligation is primarily based on their proportionate share of their combined incomes. For example, if the noncustodial parent's income is 60% of their combined incomes, and the total child support obligation is $2,000 per month, that parent's share of the basic support obligation is $1,200 (or 60% of $2,000).

Also, not all cases are typical. When parents have shared physical custody, the parent who has the children more than half the time might conceivably have to make support payments if the other parent earns considerably less (more on that below).

What Counts as Income When Calculating Child Support?

To calculate child support, you'll need to know each parent's annual gross income and adjusted gross income.

Gross income includes income from almost any source, such as as wages, tips, commissions, pensions, alimony payments being received, unemployment benefits, veterans' benefits, workers' compensation or disability benefits, lottery and gambling winnings, and self-employment or business income (after deducting reasonable and necessary business expenses). But gross income doesn't include benefits received from means-tested public assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), SSI, or food stamps.

Each parent's adjusted gross income is their gross income minus:

  • alimony the parent is paying to the other parent
  • the parent's payments under a previous child support order
  • a certain amount for other children living in the parent's home (more on that below), and
  • for self-employed parents, 50% of what they pay in Social Security and Medicare taxes.

    You can find a complete list of what does and doesn't qualify as income in D.C. Code § 16-916.01(d) (2024).

    When D.C. Judges May Impute Income to Parents

    Judges in D.C. may impute (assign) income to parents who are voluntarily unemployed or underemployed as part of a deliberate effort to lower their income, maximize the other parent's child support obligation, or shirk their own obligation. Judges won't impute income to parents who are physically or mentally unable to work or are receiving means-tested public assistance. (D.C. Code § 16-916.01(d)(10) (2024).)

    When imputing income, the judge will usually look at circumstances such as the parent's work history, education and training, available jobs in the area, and whether the parent has been diligently looking for work.

    Adjustments to Child Support in D.C.

    D.C.'s guidelines allow adjustments to subtract the following expenses from the basic support obligation:

    • the portion of health insurance premiums for the children's coverage
    • extraordinary, unreimbursed medical expenses for the children (up to $250 per year for each child), and
    • reasonable child care expenses due to a parent's employment or education.

    There's an additional adjustment when a child is receiving SSDI derivative benefits.

    D.C.'s guidelines also include a "Self-Support Reserve" to ensure that low-income parents will be left with enough money after paying child support to sustain at least a minimum standard of living. The support worksheets will show the current amount of the reserve.

    (D.C. Code § 16-916.01 (2024).)

    Calculating Child Support When Parents Have Shared Custody

    The law in D.C. recognizes that parents have higher expenses when their children live with each parent a significant amount of time. That's why the guidelines include a separate calculation when the parents have shared physical custody. After the overall support obligation is multiplied by 1.5, a mathematical formula will factor in the percentage of time the kids live with each parent, as well as the parents' relative incomes. The result of that calculation will determine which parent pays support, as well as how much the payments will be.

    When each parent has a child for at least 35% of the time, the guidelines presume that they have shared custody. However, a parent may overcome that presumption by proving that this special calculation would be unjust or inappropriate, given the parents' particular custody arrangements.

    (D.C. Code § 16-916.01(q) (2024).)

    When Child Support May Differ From the Guideline Amount

    The law in D.C. presumes that the amount of child support calculated under the guidelines is the correct amount in each case—unless that amount would be unjust or inappropriate under the particular circumstances. When judges are deciding whether that exception applies, they may consider whether:

    • the child or the parent paying support has exceptional needs
    • the noncustodial parent earns substantially less than the other parent or is paying for certain expensive necessities for the child (like tuition)
    • there are other resources available for supporting the child at the guideline level (or more) as a result of a property settlement in the divorce or because the child has regular, substantial income
    • applying the guideline would cause extraordinary hardship because either parent is supporting another dependent, including an elderly relative or a child (more on that below)
    • the parent paying support is younger than 19 and is a full-time student, and
    • some other circumstance would make it clearly unfair to apply the guideline amount of support.

    (D.C. Code § 16-916.01(p) (2024).)

    Can Parents Agree on a Child Support Amount?

    Parents have the option of agreeing on a child support amount—and most parents do reach an agreement, at least at some point in the process.

    However, the parents will need to submit their agreement to the court for the judge's review. If they've agreed to an amount of support that's different than the amount under the guideline calculation, the judge will have to decide if their agreement is fair. (D.C. Code § 16-916.01(o) (2024).)

    When Does Child Support End in D.C.?

    Unlike in most states, a parent's duty to support a child in D.C. continues until the child turns 21, unless child has been legally emancipated sooner than that. (D.C. Dom. Rel. Rules, rule 2; D.C. Code § 46-101 (2024).)

    Parents may agree to extend child support beyond age 21 such as when they want to support a child who's attending college. If that's the case, it's best to have the agreement in writing, signed by both parents, and approved by the court. This should help avoid any problems down the road.

    How to Apply for Child Support

    When parents have filed for divorce (or legal separation), child support is handled as part of that process. You can request child support in your initial paperwork.

    If you aren't married to your child's other parent, you can get help establishing child support (and paternity, if necessary) by opening a case with the D.C. Child Support Services Division (CSSD).

    Collecting and Enforcing Child Support in D.C.

    The CSSD collects child support payments in D.C. If the parent who owes support is employed, the agency will issue an order requiring the employer to withhold (deduct) the support payments from the parent's paycheck and forward it to CSSD. The agency will then send the money to the recipient parent.

    When there isn't an income withholding order, the CSSD allows a few different payment methods, including online payments by credit or debit card.

    Parents who are having trouble collecting child support can also get help from the CSSD. The agency has a number of enforcement tools, including:

    • intercepting income tax refunds, workers' compensation benefits, or disability checks
    • seizing bank accounts
    • having a parent's driver's license or vehicle registration (or both) suspended
    • placing a lien on the other parent's property, so that it can't be sold or mortgaged until the debt is paid, and
    • filing a motion to have the delinquent parent found in contempt of court, which could result in fines or even jail time.

    If you're the noncustodial parent, you should know that you're not allowed to stop paying child support just because the custodial parent is withholding visitation.

    How to Get Child Support Changed

    You may request a change in your existing child support order, but the requirements and procedures will depend on the circumstances.

    • Agreements. Under D.C. law, every three years parents are required to exchange any information about their current finances and dependents that would be relevant to calculating child support. Using this updated information and the guidelines, you and the other parent may agree to voluntarily revise your support order. Of course, any updated child support order must be reviewed and signed by a judge.
    • Modification based on changed circumstances. Without an agreement, you may file a motion with the court to request a modification of your existing order. You'll usually have to prove that there has been a "material and substantial" change in circumstances—specifically, a change in the child's needs or the parent's ability to pay support. However, the law will presume that you've met the changed-circumstances requirement if a new support calculation (based on your current situation and the current guidelines) results in an amount that's at least 15% different than your current support order.
    • Review by the CSSD. Every three years, you may ask the CSSD to review your existing support order. Then, if the review shows that a modification is justified under the guidelines, you can ask the agency to file a modification motion for you with the court.

    (D.C. Code § 16-916.01(r) (2024).)

    Does Remarriage Affect Child Support in D.C.?

    In and of itself, either parent's remarriage won't affect the amount of child support. A new spouse's income isn't included in a parent's income when calculating support.

    However, when remarriage comes with kids, that could affect the amount of support for children from the parent's previous marriage, Here's how:

    • The guideline calculation allows a deduction from gross income for each child living in the parent's home (other than any child covered by the support order), as long as the parent owes a legal duty to pay support. This would apply to any new child that a parent has with the subsequent spouse.
    • As discussed above, the judge may approve a deviation from the guideline when a parent is supporting another dependent (besides the child or children covered by the support order). Here, other dependents specifically include stepchildren, as well as biological or adopted children with a new spouse. However, this deviation factor will apply only if using the guideline amount would result in extraordinary hardship (presumably to either parent). (D.C. Code § 16-916.01(p)(4) (2024).)

    (D.C. Code § 16-916.01(d), (p) (2024).)

    Resources and Help With Child Support

    D.C. offers an online child support calculator that you can use to get an estimate of the support amount you'll owe or receive. But remember that the judge may award a different amount, based on the rules and circumstances discussed above. You can find the current child support schedule, as well as worksheets for the calculations, in the Appendices to the guidelines.

    Despite all of the help and resources available through the CSSD, there are situations when you may need to speak with a family law attorney. This is especially true in complicated support situations, such as when each parent will have physical custody of at least one of the couple's children (known as split custody), or when you and your co-parent don't agree about a request to modify support or deviate from the guidelines.

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