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 Delaware, both parents, whether married or not, are obligated to support their children.
Delaware follows a very complicated child support model known as the “Melson Model.” This model is a variation of the “Income Shares Model” used in most states. Under the Income Shares Model, courts estimate the amount parents would spend on children if the family were intact and living in one household, and then divide this amount between the parents based on their incomes. The Melson Model provides for additional adjustments, including allocation of a “self-support allowance” to each parent before determining how much of the parent’s income is available for child support, and a “standard of living adjustment” (SOLA) after calculation of a child’s primary needs, to bring support amounts more closely in line with the economic status of the child’s parents.
Judges in Delaware refer to the current version of the Delaware Child Support Guidelines. Parents attempting to estimate child support can obtain manual worksheets with instructions (Forms 509 and 509-I) from the Delaware State Court. These forms, as well as an automatic calculator, are also available through the Delaware Family Court Website. The guidelines and forms are revised periodically, so be sure you have the current versions before relying on any results.
If you have a court case in Delaware where child support is an issue, you will be required to attend mediation and provide the mediator with adequate documentation showing your income. This usually includes your most recent tax return, W-2 Form, and three most recent pay stubs; documentation of any social security payments, unemployment or worker‘s compensation payments; a physician‘s statement supporting any claim of disability; and receipts for child care payments, private school costs, or any additional payments relating to special needs of children. If you are self-employed, you should provide all schedules and forms filed with your tax returns, as well as actual receipts showing payment for significant expenses. If you don’t yet have a tax return for the current year, you should bring other documents reflecting current income.
The primary support obligation will be based on both parents’ combined net income. Net income is gross income minus allowable deductions and the self-support allowance. The self-support allowance is an amount that courts have determined to be the minimum net income a parent requires to meet basic needs and remain productive in a workplace. This is currently set at $1,120 per month. Parents supporting natural or adopted minor children of other relationships can deduct an additional amount (specified in the tables included in Form 509), regardless of whether or not those children currently live in the parent’s household. This adjustment takes the place of a deduction from net income for payment of child support for children of other relationships, and also acknowledges that a parent who is supporting additional children in the home will have reduced funds available for all children.
Gross income includes most types of earned or unearned income. Common examples are wages, commissions, self-employment income, bonuses, alimony, dividend or interest income, rent, worker’s compensation or unemployment insurance benefits, and pension or retirement benefits. Allowable deductions include such things as income tax payments, health insurance premiums, disability insurance premiums, mandatory union dues, mandatory retirement payments, and alimony payments. Form 509-I specifies what items you must include in gross income and what items you may deduct to arrive at your individual net income.
Each parent will be responsible for a percentage of the primary support obligation, calculated by dividing the parent’s net available income by the combined net available income. For example, if the parents’ total net monthly income is $5,000, with Parent A having income of $3,000 per month, and Parent B having income of $2,000 per month, Parent A’s share will be 60% and Parent B’s will be 40%. After determining each parent’s share of total available income, you can look up the primary support allowance for the applicable number of children in each parent’s household in the tables included in Form 509.
Before determining each parent’s actual primary support obligation, you should add the following additional items to the primary support allowance to determine the child’s total primary needs:
After you have determined each parent’s net available income and added together all items included in the child’s primary support needs, you can determine each parent's primary support obligation by multiplying the total amount of the primary support needs by the parent’s percentage share of available net income.
Unreimbursed medical expenses are not included in primary support needs. Every child support order includes a standard provision holding the parent receiving support responsible for the first $350 of unreimbursed medical, dental and psychological counseling expenses children incur (together, not individually) during a calendar year and requiring the parties to share unreimbursed expenses in excess of $350 according to their percentage share of available net income.
The SOLA comes into play after the parent’s own needs and the children’s primary needs have been met. (SOLA) is intended to tailor support amounts to mimic the standard of living each child would have enjoyed in a single family unit including both parents. You can calculate the adjustment by subtracting each parent's primary support obligation from net available income and multiplying the result by a designated percentage based upon the applicable number of children. Form 509 includes tables for calculating SOLA.
A "shared custody" arrangement may also affect the total amount of child support. In Delaware, a court will find that "shared custody" exists when a child spends an average of somewhere between 110 to 174 overnights each year with the parent who will be paying support. For a shared custody arrangement, the Delaware Child Support Formula allows for an additional adjustment (in the allocation of the primary support allowance and the parents’ combined SOLA), so that the parent responsible for paying support will generally pay a lower amount.
A Delaware court may order support in an amount different from guideline support (a “deviation”) if the guideline formula results in an award that’s not in the best interests of the child or is unfair to either of the parents. Because the Delaware formula is so specific, deviations from guidelines aren’t very common. If a court does deviate from the guidelines, it will need to explain the specific reason for doing so. Parents may enter into agreements setting child support, but the court can reject any agreement that calls for a deviation from the guidelines if it's not in the best interests of the child.
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 lower paying position under the mistaken belief that this will relieve them of their child support payments. A court is not likely to tolerate such behavior. If a court finds that either parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, it may impute income to that parent based on the parent’s employment potential in light of recent work history, occupational qualifications, and prevailing earnings levels in the community.
A court won't ordinarily impute income to a parent who needs to stay home with the child (because the child is a young infant or is disabled, for example), to a disabled parent, or to a parent who is (or is about to be) incarcerated for longer than one year. If there is no proof of the actual income the parent would be able to earn, the court will presume that the income would be at least one-half the statewide median wage, currently calculated as $8.58 per hour, or $1,478 per month, for years 2011 and 2012. This figure is adjusted every two years.
Once a court has made an initial child support order, a parent who wants to modify (change) the 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 not consider a request for modification if less than 2 years have passed since previous order, unless the difference between an existing award and the amount determined by a new analysis and application of the current guidelines would be at least 10%.
In Delaware the support obligation normally continues until a child who has finished high school turns 18, or until a full-time high school student turns 19.
The State of Delaware’s Department of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE) 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 DCSE website.