Child support is a two-parent responsibility. Whether you are seeking payments or concerned about your obligation to pay, it is important to know that both parents must financially support the child. In Wisconsin, a court can order one or both parents to pay child support that’s reasonable or necessary. 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 does not mean that the parent receiving the payment does not have to contribute. On the contrary, the amount of support is based on an assumption that the parent with majority custody 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. If you think you won’t have to pay because you don’t have a job, think again. For child support purposes, income is all earnings from all sources. It does not matter whether the type of income can be taxed; both taxable (say, your salary) and non-taxable amounts (your 401k, for example) count toward total income. The only difference is that you can deduct taxes first. In other words, if your salary is $30,000 a year, but you take home $25,000 after taxes, then $25,000 is the number to use for calculating child support.
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 worker’s compensation benefits, unemployment insurance, and social security disability payments and contributions to retirement accounts. If you have been in the military, then your allowance or veteran’s benefits will be part of the calculations, too.
Income does not include public assistance payments such as social security or food stamps. Also, if you already have a court order for support payments of another child, then you can exclude that amount, too.
Wisconsin’s Department of Children and Families provides a helpful worksheet to help you determine what income to use. See Income for Child Support.
In situations where a parent isn’t employed, then a court can still impute or derive an income for that parent based on other factors if it is fair and reasonable to do so. For example, if a parent is purposefully unemployed or underemployed to avoid making support payments, then 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. Also, a court could count assets such as life insurance, cash, stocks and bonds, or business interests if other sources of income do not cover a child’s needs.
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. 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 have not 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 is the percent conversion table. Generally, this is the guideline to use if the paying parent’s income is between $1,350 and $7,000 a month. Based on this guideline, a parent owes:
If a paying parent makes less than $1,350 per month, use the low-income payer table. There, the percentage owed starts as low as 11.34% for one child or 22.35% for five children. The closer the paying parent’s income gets to $1,350, the closer the percentages of income owed look like the standard guideline above.
If a paying parent makes more than $7,000, then the high-income payer table may be used. Just because a parent makes more money does not necessarily mean child support payments will be higher than the standard amount. A parent of one child who makes $8,000 a month pays 14% of that income or $1,120, while a parent of one child who makes $7,000 a month pays 17% of that income or $1,190. This might seem unfair to you. If in fact it is unfair, and the court agrees with you, then it’s possible for the court to increase the amount.
There are other exceptions to the standard guidelines. The serial family calculator is for parents supporting more than one family. The shared-placement calculator is for parents whose custody arrangement allows for at least 25% of the time with the non-custodial parent. The split-placement calculator is for situations where there is more than one child, but the kids are split up between the parents. For example, mom has custody of the older child and dad has custody of the younger child. Also, there is a combination calculator, where the parenting plan combines both shared placement and split placement. See the Sources section below for a link to these calculators.
Regardless of the guideline used, the amount of child support must be reasonable. In most cases, it must also be a fixed number unless the parents agree to a percentage of the paying parent’s income. In that case, the amount of support would increase or decrease automatically as the paying parent brought in more or less money.
If the child support given by the guidelines is unfair to the child or a parent, then either parent can ask the court to increase or decrease it. To do so, the court must consider a series of factors and explain in writing why a different amount is more just. The factors used are:
While these factors help the court come to a fair result, they do not lend themselves to concrete calculations. Consequently, if you and the other parent can’t agree to pay child-support equal to the amount set by the guidelines or more, then the court has the authority to come up with a number that you might not have expected.
You can read the law on child support in the Wisconsin statutes, section 767.511.
The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families provides several different online tools to help you navigate through this process. It even provides some videos that give general information on child support. This state agency also has resources to estimate income and use the different guideline calculators.
The Wisconsin Department of Children and Families is also a good resource for enforcing child support orders.