Child Support in Rhode Island

Learn how to calculate child support in Rhode Island, how a get your existing support order changed, and when child support ends.

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Rhode Island provides judges and parents with a consistent method for calculating a child support figure by using standardized child support guidelines. The calculations can seem daunting at first, and the rules aren't all in one place. It will help to have an overview of how the guidelines work in Rhode Island.

Who Pays Child Support in Rhode Island?

In Rhode Island, both parents are responsible for the financial support of their children. Child support is primarily based on parental income and the number of children to be supported. Their specific parenting arrangements and other circumstances may also factor into the support amount.

In a typical custody (or "parenting") arrangement after divorce, children live most of the time with one parent (the "custodial parent"), and the noncustodial parent pays child support. It might seem like parents who receive child support aren't paying their fair share. But that's not the case, because the guidelines work under the assumption that custodial parents meet their support obligation by paying directly for the children's daily expenses, such as food, clothing, and housing.

What Counts as Income When Calculating Child Support?

The child support calculation in New Hampshire starts with entering each parent's monthly gross income on the guideline worksheet. Gross income includes income from pretty much any source, such as wages, commissions, bonuses, pensions, alimony, self-employment or business income (minus ordinary and necessary expenses), Social Security retirement benefits, unemployment benefits, and workers' compensation or disability benefits. But income does not include payments from public assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or SNAP (food stamps).

(R.I. Admin. Order 2012-05 (IV.B.1).)

When Rhode Island Judges May Impute Income to Parents

In some cases, parents attempt to avoid their duty to support their children, usually by quitting a job, taking low-paying employment, or working under the table. Under Rhode Island's guidelines, child support should be calculated using a parent's potential income (often called "imputing income") when the parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed—unless the parent is physically or mentally incapacitated.

When deciding how much potential income to apply, the judge will look at the parent's recent work history and occupational qualifications, as well as the work opportunities and prevailing wage levels in the community.Tthe guidelines recommend imputing at least the minimum wage level as income if parents don't have a recent work history and don't have vocational training or higher education.

(R.I. Admin. Order 2012-05 (IV.B.1).)

Deductions and Adjustments to Child Support Income

Rhode Island's child support worksheet includes both required and optional deductions from gross income. The following items must be deducted from each parent's gross income:

  • preexisting court-ordered child support payments for other children
  • court-ordered payments for health insurance premiums (or medical cash contributions) for the child or children covered by this support order
  • each parent's proportionate share of work-related child care costs, and
  • the child support obligation for either parent's additional children (more on that below).

It's up to the judge to decide whether to allow any or all of the following optional deductions to gross income:

  • mandatory contributions to a pension or retirement plan
  • premiums for life insurance that a parent is maintaining for the children's benefit
  • a parent's uninsured extraordinary medical expenses
  • the financial benefits to the parent who takes the dependency exemption for the child or children, and
  • payments for marital debts assigned to a parent as part of the property division in the divorce.

Rhode Island's current support tables also incorporate a "self-support reserve" to ensure that the parent who's ordered to pay child support will be left with enough money to sustain at least a minimum standard of living. The self-support reserve is based on a percentage of the federal poverty level.

When Child Support May Differ From the Guideline Amount

Generally, Rhode Island law requires judges to order the amount of child support that's calculated under the guidelines. However, if the guideline amount would be unfair to the child or either parent, the law allows judges to order a different amount that's reasonable or necessary for the child's support. Before deviating from the guidelines, judges must consider all of the relevant circumstances, including:

  • the financial resources of both parents and the child
  • the noncustodial parent's needs
  • the standard of living the child would have enjoyed if the parents hadn't divorced
  • the child's physical and emotional condition, and
  • the child's educational needs.

(R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 15-9-1(a), 15-5-16.2(a) (2024).

Also, New Hampshire's administrative orders have emphasized that the guidelines are meant to provide a floor (rather than a ceiling) for child support, and that judges are encouraged to order higher amounts or supplemental payments (for things like educational expenses) when it's appropriate—such as when parents are high earners. (R.I. Admin. Order 2012-05 (III).)

Can Parents Agree on a Child Support Amount?

You always have the option of agreeing with your child's other parent on an amount of child support. But you'll have to submit your agreement to the court for a judge's approval. If you've settled on an amount that's higher than the calculation under the guidelines, it shouldn't be a problem. But if you've agreed to a lower amount, you'll need to convince the judge that the circumstances in your case support a deviation from the guidelines (as discussed above).

When Does Child Support End in Rhode Island?

Child support normally ends when a child reaches the age of 18 or otherwise becomes emancipated. (Rhode Island doesn't have a formal emancipation statute, but emancipation before the age of 18 normally occurs when a child is self-supporting, married, or in the military service.)

If the child is still in high school at 18, the judge may allow support to continue for 90 days after graduation—but not after the child's 19th birthday. However, when a child has a severe physical or mental impairment and is still living in a parent's care, the judge may decide to continue child support after considering the circumstances, including the inability of the primary caregiver to work full time because of the child's needs.

(R.I. Gen. Laws §§ 15-9-1(b) and 15-5-16.2(b) (2024).

Parents may agree to extend child support beyond the cut-off age—for instance, when they want to support a child who's attending college or some other post-secondary school course of studies. But to avoid any problems down the road, that agreement should be in writing, signed by both parents, and approved by the court.

Be aware that a child support order doesn't automatically end when the child turns 18 or 19. Check with your local Family Court clerk to learn what you need to do to officially terminate your child support order.

Another thing to keep in mind: Even when your obligation to pay child support ends, you still have to pay any past-due amounts (arrearages).

How to Apply for Child Support in Rhode Island

When parents are getting divorced (or legally separated), child support is handled as part of the divorce process. You can request child support when you file your divorce papers.

If you aren't married to your child's other parent, you may request child support through the Rhode Island Office of Child Support Services (OCSS).

Collecting and Enforcing Child Support in Rhode Island

Child support in Rhode Island is paid through the State Disbursement Unit (SDU). After receiving the payments, the SDU will send the money on to the recipient parent, either through direct deposit or an electronic debit card, called a Kids Card.

Normally, Rhode Island requires noncustodial parents to pay child support through wage withholding, unless there's a good reason not to do that (such as when a parent is self-employed) or the parents agree on another way to pay. With wage withholding, the employer will deduct the support amount from the parent's salary and forward it to the SDU. (218 R.I. Code R. 30-00-1.19 (2024).)

If you're having trouble collecting child support, you may ask the OCSS to enforce the order. The agency has many ways to collect overdue support or get delinquent parents to pay. Depending on the amount of the arrearages, these methods may include:

  • reporting the debt to credit bureaus
  • intercepting tax refunds, lottery winnings, or insurance proceeds
  • seizing bank accounts, and
  • suspending driver's or occupational licenses.

The OCSS or the recipient parent may also file a motion to have the delinquent parent found in contempt of court, which can result in fines and even jail time. When it's appropriate, the OCSS may even refer the case for criminal prosecution. (218 R.I. Code R. 30-00-1.20 (2024).)

It's important to remember that you're still obligated to obey the terms of any custody and parenting time (visitation) order, even if your co-parent isn't keeping up with child support payments. And if you're the one paying child support, you aren't allowed to stop those payments just because the other parent is withholding visitation.

Requesting a Change in Child Support

After a child support order is in place, you may request a modification if there's been a substantial change in circumstances, such as when a parent has involuntarily lost income. But there are any number of situations that could qualify as a substantial change in circumstances. Without changed circumstances, you'll need to wait three years from when the court issued the current support order to request a modification.

There are a couple of ways to request a child support modification. You may request a review from the OCSS, which will evaluate the request to determine if you meet any of the following criteria for referring the request to the court:

  • it's been at least three years since the existing support order was issued or last reviewed
  • applying the new income information under the current child support guidelines would result in an amount of child support that's at least 15% different than the existing support order
  • the parents' custody arrangements have changed
  • health insurance is available at reasonable cost to the noncustodial parent, and the existing support order doesn't provide for the child's health care needs
  • the parents have another child who needs to be added to the existing support order, or
  • since the existing order was issued, a parent has expenses for a new child.

(218 R.I. Code R. 30-00-1.22.2 (2024).)

If the OCSS can't assist you, you may request a modification by filing a "motion for relief" with the court. Either way, if your request comes before the court, the judge will review your existing order under the current guidelines. Because those guidelines change periodically, be aware that the amount of your payments could go down or up.

Does Remarriage Affect Child Support in Rhode Island?

In and of itself, a parent's remarriage won't affect the amount of child support. But what if a parent has a new child? As mentioned above, the expenses of supporting a new child are one of the criteria for a court hearing on a modification request. And when child support is recalculated based on the parents' current finances, the guidelines require a deduction from a parent's gross income for any additional minor dependents.

Although a new spouse's income generally isn't included in a parent's income when calculating child support, there are some scenarios when it may play a role. For example:

  • When child support is recalculated as part of a modification request, the deduction for a parent's additional minor dependents will take into account the combined gross income of both of those children's parents—meaning that the new spouse's income will be part of the calculation. The deduction is usually no more than 50% of the child support obligation, but it may be as much as 100% if the new spouse isn't able to contribute to the family's income because that parent is incapacitated, incarcerated, or has died. (R.I. Admin. Order 2012-05 (IV.B.2.c).)
  • Remarriage might affect how much of a parent's income is available for support. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has repeatedly held that when judges are making decisions about child support, they may consider all relevant factors that affect the noncustodial parent's ability to pay support. (Trojan v. Trojan, 208 A.3d 221 (R.I. 2019).) Presumably, this means if more of a parent's income is available for paying child support because a new spouse is significantly contributing to household expenses, a judge might take that into account when deciding if the parent can pay more child support. Typically, however, judges aren't likely to increase support under these circumstances unless the existing order didn't cover the child's needs.

Resources and Help With Child Support

You can find links to the child support worksheet and the most recent guideline schedule on the Rhode Island Child Support Guidelines page. The guideline schedule includes tables of the basic support obligation based on the parents' combined income levels and the number of children being supported, as well as examples of worksheets in some complicated situations, such as when the parents have shared or split custody (meaning that each parent has at least one of their children most of the time).

In addition to helping parents establish, enforce, or modify child support orders, the OCSS can help locate absent parents or legally establish your child's parentage if you weren't married to the other parent. The OCSS website also provides other resources and forms you might need.

But in some situations, you might need the help of a family law attorney to deal with child support, especially if you and your co-parent have shared or split custody of your kids, one of you is seeking a child support order that deviates from the guideline amount, or the OCSS can't help you with a modification request.

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