Child support is a two-parent responsibility. Whether you're seeking payments, or concerned about your obligation to pay, it's important to know that both parents must financially support their child.
In Wisconsin, a court can order one or both parents to pay necessary or reasonable child support. Although the reasonableness of an amount will vary from family to family, you can estimate how much a payment will be by using a set of guidelines (explained below), but a court will have to approve the final amount.
Typically, the parent with less than 50% of physical custody is the one who has to make the payment. This doesn't mean that the parent receiving the payment doesn't have to contribute. On the contrary, the amount of support is based on an assumption that the parent with greater custodial time is already paying for the care and support of the child.
In Wisconsin, child support payments are based on the income of the paying parent. Income can be actual money earned or property or services. It can come from a wide range of sources, like wages, tips, bonuses, commissions, or interest on assets like real property (a house) or investments.
It also includes workers' compensation benefits, unemployment insurance, social security disability payments, and contributions to retirement accounts. If you've been in the military, then your allowance or veteran's benefits will be part of the calculations, too.
Income doesn't include:
After you have the numbers on the paying parent's income, you can follow a guideline (or in some cases, there are on-line calculators) to estimate the amount of child support. Click here for the guideline calculators. (Note that Wisconsin made changes to its child support guidelines, effective July 1, 2018. As of the date this article was written, the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families still had not updated its online calculators to conform to the changes. So check the website to see if the calculators are current.)
If you are seeking payments, then you will need the other parent's cooperation to get the information you need. Even if the two of you can work together to calculate your responsibilities, a court must approve the amount you agree to provide.
If you haven't been able to get the other parent to cooperate, then you will need the court's help. Once a parent files a request for child support with the court, both parents will be required to disclose accurate financial information. Then, the court will use the same calculator that you could use yourself, but only a court can order a parent to pay.
In Wisconsin, there are seven different guidelines. The standard guideline uses the following percentages of income to calculate child support:
To see how this translates into dollars and cents based on actual income figures, take a look at the Child Support Percentage Table.
The other support guidelines Wisconsin law contains are:
You can find more in depth information on these additional guidelines in the Wisconsin Administrative Code, Sections DCF 150.03 and 150.04. It will be much easier to determine your support obligation once the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families updates its website to include the most current calculators.
Note also that child support orders must contain a provision for payment of a child's medical expenses.
Additionally, a child support order may provide for an annual adjustment in the amount to be paid, based on a change in the payer's income. This is conditioned on the child support being set forth in the order as a fixed sum and based on the percentage standard of the guidelines. No annual adjustment may be made unless the order provides for it.
The law allows the court to deviate from the guidelines if the court finds that using the percentage standard is unfair to the child or to either of the parents. In order to do that, the court has to consider various factors.
Some of them are:
Note that if the court decides to deviate from the percentage standard guideline, the court has to indicate: the amount of support that would have been awarded using the percentage standard guideline; the amount by which the court's order deviates from that figure; its reasons for determining that using the percentage standard is unfair to the child or either parent; and, its reasons for the amount of the deviation and the basis for the deviation.
Sometimes parents decrease their earnings in an attempt to avoid child support or at least lower the amount they'd have to pay. Not a smart move, because in situations where a parent isn't earning to capacity, a court can impute income to them. For example, if a parent is purposely unemployed or underemployed, a court could look at this parent's past earnings, current physical and mental health, history of child care responsibilities, education, and local job openings to determine the amount this parent should be earning to support a child.
The court can also look at a parent's assets to determine if income from those assets should be used to calculate child support. If an asset is under-producing, the court will determine whether the parent is manipulating the asset to try to skirt child support responsibility. That same reasoning also applies to a business the parent may have an ownership interest in.
Note, however, that there may be situations where a parent's decrease in earnings might be legitimate, such as when a parent becomes disabled or involuntarily loses employment. Scenarios like these should be brought to the court's attention.
A parent can have a child support order reviewed every three years. The child support agency sends out notices to parents to remind them of their right to request a review. Parents receiving cash benefits from Wisconsin Works (W-2), SSI Caretaker Supplement, and Kinship Care programs will automatically have their court orders reviewed every three years. Note, however, that a review doesn't necessarily mean the order will change.
If a parent wants a child support order changed (modified), and the order hasn't been reviewed within the last three years, the parent must request the modification from the court or the local child support agency, indicating that there's been a substantial change in circumstances from when the current support order took effect. An example of a substantial change might be when a parent has a significant increase or decrease in income, or the paying parent is incarcerated. A modification is unlikely if the change in the child support amount would be less than 15% of the current order and the difference is less than $50 per month.
Be aware that both parents can agree on a modification of the support order, but the court must approve that agreement. If the parents are representing themselves in the application, they can use Form FA 604-A and Form FA 604-B.
Wisconsin law provides that child support payments must be collected through income withholding, meaning your employer takes the money out of your paycheck. But there may be situations where alternate payment methods are acceptable, such as if you're self-employed. In situations where the law permits you to use an alternate method, you can pay:
Child support payments are processed through the Wisconsin Support Collection Trust Fund.
Under Wisconsin law, parents have the duty to support their child until the child reaches the age of 18. However, the duty to support will end at age 19 if the child is still enrolled in high school or working on a high school equivalency course (GED). It's important to note that the support order will automatically end at 18 unless the parent provides written documentation to the child support agency that the child attends high school or is enrolled in a GED program.
Be aware that having a child reach 18 (or 19 if applicable) doesn't relieve you of your obligation to make up any child support payment arrears that may have accrued.
There are several measures the Wisconsin Child Support Agency can take to enforce child support orders, in addition to income withholding. Some of them are:
For more information about child support, speak to a local family law attorney for advice.