If you are a parent going through a divorce, or if you have never been married to your child’s other parent and are ending the relationship, you may need information about child support. In the District of Columbia (D.C.), both parents, whether married or not, are obligated to support their children.
D.C. follows the “Income Shares Model” which means that courts will estimate the amount parents would spend on their children when both parents and children live together in one household (as if the family were still intact) and then divide this amount between the parents based on their incomes.
Judges ordering child support in D.C. refer to the current version of the Child Support Guidelines contained in D.C. Code §16-916.01 (Title 16 Chapter 9). The guidelines include a Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations which shows the total amount of support both parents must pay based on their combined gross incomes and the number of children they have together. A percentage of the total support obligation is assigned to each parent based on that parent’s income percentage. For example, if parent A earns $60,000 per year and parent B earns $40,000 per year, parent A would be responsible for 60% of the support amount (60,000 divided by 100,000) and parent B for 40% of the support amount (40,000 divided by 100,000).
Multiple steps are required to obtain an accurate child support figure, and the guidelines are fairly complex and difficult to read. A much easier way to obtain a rough estimate of the amount one parent may have to pay the other is to use the D.C. automatic child support calculator. If you have questions about the guidelines, how to use the calculator, or how accurate the estimate might be in your particular case, you should contact an attorney for help.
To use the calculator, you’ll need to know what the parenting arrangement is going to look like. If one parent has physical custody of a child more than 65% of the time (or more than 237 days per year), you’ll use the sole custody formula, which divides the support amount according to income share only. Under the sole custody formula, the parent who spends less time with the child pays support to the other parent. Courts assume that the custodial parent’s share of child support is already going toward the day-to-day costs of caring for the child.
If each parent has physical custody of a child for at least 35% of the time (128 days per year), use the shared custody formula. The shared custody formula begins by multiplying the basic child support obligation (from the schedule in the guidelines) by 1.5. This increase acknowledges the fact that total costs of child care are greater when both parents maintain an essentially full-time residence for a child. Parents then divide the increased support amount between them according to their incomes and parenting time (percentage of time or number of days per year that a child spends with each parent). This is a multi-step process. The guidelines explain each step of the calculation, and the calculator will automatically compute the final amount that one parent will pay to the other.
After determining the basic support obligation, you can make certain limited adjustments for items such as health insurance premiums, extraordinary medical expenses, and child care expenses that either parent is paying directly. Regardless of whether you’re using the sole parenting or shared parenting formula, you will divide responsibility for these expenses according to income share only, without adjustment for parenting time.
In some cases courts may order an amount different from the guideline amount (called a “deviation”). A court might find that a deviation is fair if, for example, a child has extraordinary expenses related to education or special needs, or if a parent has extraordinary expenses such as financial responsibility for an elderly parent. The guidelines include additional information about situations that may call for deviations. A judge who decides that an exceptional circumstance justifies a deviation must include the reasons in the court record.
Sadly, some parents try to avoid their child support obligation by quitting a job or failing to conduct an adequate job search. For example, a parent might quit a good paying, highly-skilled job to take a lower paying position under the mistaken belief that the lower pay will provide an excuse for not paying child support. Courts are not likely to tolerate this behavior. If a court finds either parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, it may estimate the parent’s potential earning capacity (what the parent could earn in light of factors such as work history, training, education, and available jobs in the area) and calculate child support based on that earning capacity, rather than on the income of a lower paying job.
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 15%. This isn’t automatic, however, and even a 15% variation won’t justify a change in the support order in every situation.
D.C. law also requires parents to exchange financial information at least once every three years and encourages parents to make adjustments to child support amounts voluntarily if the new financial information would result in a change according to the guidelines. The age of majority (legal adulthood) in D.C. is 21, and a child support obligation will extend until a child turns 21 unless the child is already self-supporting as a result of employment, marriage, or military service.
The District of Columbia Child Support Services Division (CSSD) is responsible for helping parents obtain and enforce child support orders, including locating absent parents and establishing paternity, if necessary. More information about these services is available on the CSSD website.