Child Support Laws in Wisconsin

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

By , Retired Judge
Updated by E.A. Gjelten , Legal Editor
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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, as well as the amount of time each parent has the child and whether parents are supporting children from other relationships.

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.

When calculating the monthly amount of income available for child support, gross income might be modified to account for certain business expenses or income that a judge "imputes" to a parent (more on that below). (Wis. Admin. Code § DCF 150.02 (2022).)

If you requesting child support and haven't been able to reach an agreement with the other parent (more on that below), you'll need the court's help. Once you file a request for child support (either as part of filing for divorce or in a separation child support proceeding), both parents will have to disclose accurate financial information. Then, the judge will use that information to calculate support under the state's guidelines.

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 parents aren't earning as much as they could, judges may impute income to them. For example, if parents are purposely unemployed or underemployed, judges may look at their past earnings, current physical and mental health, history of child care responsibilities, education, and local job openings to determine the amount they should be earning to support a child. (Wis. Admin. Code § DCF 150.03(3) (2022).)

Judges may also look at parents' assets to determine if income from those assets should be used to calculate child support. If an asset is under-producing, the judge will determine whether the parent is manipulating the asset to try to skirt child support responsibility. That same reasoning also applies to a business in which parents may have an ownership interest. (Wis. Admin. Code § DCF 150.03(4) (2022).)

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 judge's attention.

Calculating Child Support Payments in Wisconsin

After you have the numbers on the paying parent's income, you can estimate the amount of child support under the appropriate guideline (known in Wisconsin as the "child support standard").

Calculating Child Support Under Wisconsin's Percentage Standard

The default guideline, the "percentage standard," is typically when one parent has custody of the children for more than 75% of the time. Under this standard, the monthly support amount is simply as a certain percentage of the paying parent's monthly available income for support, depending on the number of children being supported:

  • 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 Conversion Table.

Child Support Calculations for Shared Custody and Other Cases

Wisconsin recognizes that this percentage calculation may not be fair in a number of circumstances, including when:

  • parents have shared custody (known in Wisconsin as shared placement), meaning that each parent has the child or children for at least 25% of the time (or 92 overnight stays in a year)
  • a parent is supporting children from other relationships (known as "serial family cases")
  • split-placement cases (when parents have at least two children and each has custody of at least one child)
  • cases that combine both split and shared placement
  • paying parents have high or low income.

Wisconsin provides tools for estimating child support payments in these situations. If you're up to it, you can also read all of the details in Wisconsin's Child Support Guideline.

Adjustments and Additions to Child Support

In Wisconsin, child support orders must include a provision for payment of a child's medical expenses.

Additionally, a child support order may provide for an annual adjustment in the payments based on changes in the paying parent's income—but only if the amount of support in the order is a fixed dollar amount and is based on the percentage standard. Otherwise, parents must seek a modification if they want to change the support amount based on one parent's change in income (more on that below). All child support orders in Wisconsin must include a requirement that parents exchange financial information each year. (Wis. Stat. §§ 767.553, 767.554 (2022).)

Deviating From the Wisconsin Guidelines

Judges in Wisconsin may order an amount of child support that's different than the calculation under the percentage standard when they find that using that standard would be unfair to the child or to either of the parents. Before making that decision, judges must consider a number of factors, including:

  • when both parents have substantial time with the child (shared placement)
  • the child's physical, mental, and emotional health needs of the child, including any costs for health insurance
  • the child's educational needs
  • the financial resources of both parents and the child
  • maintenance (spousal support or alimony) received by either parent
  • the standard of living the child would have enjoyed if the parents had stayed together
  • extraordinary travel expenses for exchanging the child between the parents' homes
  • the needs of anyone else (besides the child in this case) that either parent is legally obligated to support
  • whether it's preferable 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, if that parent remains at home, the value of their "custodial services"
  • each parent's earning capacity
  • the tax consequences to each parent
  • the best interests of the child, and
  • any other factors the judge believes are relevant.

When judges deviate from the percentage standard guideline, they must state the amount of support under the percentage standard how much the order differs from that figure, and the reasons for the deviation. (Wis. Stat. § 767.511(1m), (1n) (2022).)

When Parents Agree on Child Support

You and your spouse may agree between yourselves on the amount of child support, but you must submit the agreement (known as a stipulation) to the court for approval. A judge won't approve the agreement unless it follows the Wisconsin's support standards. (Wis. Stat. § 767.34 (2022).)

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. (Wis. Stat. § 767.59(1f) (2022).)

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. Here again, however, a judge 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

In Wisconsin, 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. When 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).(Wis. Stat. § 767.511(4) (2022).)

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).
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