Child Support Laws in Wisconsin

Find out how to calculate child support in Wisconsin and how a support award can be modified or terminated.

Updated by , Retired Judge

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.

What Constitutes Income When Determining Child Support?

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:

  • child support
  • foster care payments
  • kinship care payments
  • public assistance benefits (in most circumstances)
  • food stamps
  • certain cash benefits paid by counties
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and state supplemental payments, and
  • payments made for social services or any other public assistance benefits.

Calculating Child Support Payments in Wisconsin

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:

  • 17% for 1 child
  • 25% for 2 children
  • 29% for 3 children
  • 31% for 4 children, and
  • 34% for 5 or more children.

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:

  • high-income payer (percentages change for income over the standard percentage table).
  • low-income payer (check here for figures)
  • serial family parents (a parent supports more than one family)
  • shared-placement parents (a court order provides that each parent has the child at least 25% of the time)
  • split-placement parents (parents who have 2 or more children and each parent has placement of one or more but not all of the children), and
  • shared-placement and split-placement combination.

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.

Deviating From the Wisconsin Guidelines

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:

  • the financial resources of the child
  • the financial resources of both parents
  • maintenance (spousal support or alimony) received by either part
  • the needs of any person, other than the child, whom either parent is legally obligated to support
  • the desirability that the custodial parent remain in the home as a full-time parent
  • the cost of child care if the custodial parent works outside the home, or the value of custodial services performed by the custodial parent if that parent remains in the home
  • the award of substantial periods of physical placement of the child to both parents
  • the physical, mental, and emotional health needs of the child, including any costs for health insurance
  • the child's educational needs
  • the tax consequences to each parent
  • the best interests of the child
  • each parent's earning capacity, and
  • any other factors which the court in each case determines are relevant.

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.

Imputing Income: When a Parent Isn't Working to Capacity

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.

Modification of Child Support in Wisconsin

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.

How to Pay Child Support

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:

  • online
  • by mail, using payment coupons
  • by phone (you'll receive a 4-digit access code), and
  • by cash or credit/debit card, at Money Gram locations.

Child support payments are processed through the Wisconsin Support Collection Trust Fund.

Terminating Child Support

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.

Enforcing Wisconsin Child Support Orders

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:

  • charging interest on past-due support amounts
  • increasing the income withholding amount
  • setting up a payment plan
  • intercepting tax refunds
  • federal enforcement actions (such as denying loans, grants, or passports)
  • imposing child support liens
  • denying licenses, and
  • taking court actions (such as seeking a contempt citation).

For more information about child support, speak to a local family law attorney for advice.

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