In Rhode Island, both parents have a duty to support their child. This means that both are expected to meet the child’s financial and other needs. Typically, however, the non-custodial parent – the parent who spends less than half time with the child (or children) – makes child support payments. The custodial parent, who has the most time with the child, remains responsible for child support too, but the law assumes that this parent spends the required amount directly on the child.
The amount of support due depends on the child’s needs and the parents’ financial abilities. The state achieves this balance by a set of guidelines, which establish a baseline support amount. In addition to this amount, parents must also cover the child’s health insurance and other expenses, including medical and educational costs.
Although the state presumes that this standardized amount is the appropriate level of support for your child, the law recognizes these calculations at times can be unfair. In situations where the amount of support would be unjust for a parent to pay or insufficient for the child, a court can adjust the amount either up or down.
The Rhode Island Department of Social Services provides a child support Guideline Worksheet to help you estimate your fair share of child support. Depending on your parenting plan (in other words, the custody arrangement), you may also need to reference the Rhode Island Family Court Child Support Formula and Guidelines, which gives additional instructions for calculating support if you have either split or shared (also called joint) custody.
These worksheets use the terms obligor and obligee. Don’t let that confuse you. The obligor is the one who is obliged to pay – also known as the non-custodial parent. The obligee is the one who receives payments – also known as the custodial parent.
To get started, you will need to know the monthly gross income of both parents. For child support purposes, gross income includes income from all sources – before taxes and any other deductions – although you can exclude benefits from the Family Independence Program. Income is your salary, wages, bonuses (even a one-time bonus) and commissions from your job, but also any pension or severance pay. Income is also money that comes from any royalties, dividends, a trust, or rents. If you are unemployed, chances are you still have income for child support purposes in the form of social security, workers’ compensation, unemployment or disability benefits.
You also need to know the amounts for any pre-existing child support payments, the health insurance premiums or medical payments the parents make on the child’s behalf, and if there are additional minor dependents. These items count as deductions that you subtract from monthly gross income to get the parents’ adjusted gross incomes. A court could, however, make further deductions of retirement benefits, life insurance payments, other medical expenses, income taxes, and payments of marital debts.
Once you have both parents’ adjusted gross incomes, look at the guidelines to find the amount due for the number of children to be supported. That is the baseline for child support, which is split proportionally between the parents based on their respective incomes.
Although a court may increase or decrease that baseline amount based on additional expenses or needs, once the order is in place the non-custodial parent pays support on a weekly basis, usually by wage withholding. In other words, the money comes automatically from the non-custodial parent’s paycheck.
Before a court issues the child support order, either parent can ask to adjust the amount of support. Where a parent presents evidence that the amount would be unjust, the court could either increase or decrease the amount of support based on any relevant factor that impacts the child’s welfare such as:
Once a child support order is in place, you may still be able to change it at any time if you have experienced a substantial change in circumstances. Usually this happens with the loss of a job, but it could also be a life change like a new baby or a shift in the amount of time your child spends with you.
Without a change in circumstances, you need to wait three years from when the court issued the order to ask for a review. Even then, the court will review it according to the guidelines, which change from time to time, so be aware that the amount of your payments could go either down or up.
Generally, child support ends when a child turns 18 or becomes emancipated. If the child turns 18 while still in high school, a court could order support payments for up to 90 days after graduation. Otherwise, a court usually can’t order support beyond a child’s 19th birthday. Parents, on the other hand, can agree to support the child for a longer period of time. Also, the rule is different when a child has a severe physical or mental impairment and continues to live under a parent’s care. In that case, the court can order continued support.
You can also read the law at the General Laws of Rhode Island, Section 15-9-1.