Imputing Income for Child Support in Montana

A look at the process of imputing income in Montana and how it impacts child support.

When a relationship with minor children ends, it doesn't matter who's to blame, because both parents have an ongoing responsibility to provide financial support for their children. Although both adults share this responsibility, one adult ("the paying parent"), usually the non-custodial parent, winds up paying child support to the custodial parent ("the receiving parent").

It's all too common for paying parents to try to get back at receiving parents ducking out on their child support obligations. But in reality, child support belongs to the children, not the receiving parent. Child support can only be used to pay for the children's needs, not the needs of the receiving parent, so trying to skimp on child support only hurts the children. When paying parents try to avoid their child support responsibility by refusing to work or working at a lower wage level, the courts sometimes "impute income" to them. This means that the court will issue a child support order that assumes the paying parent is working at regular earning levels.

This article will explain when and how courts impute income for child support purposes in Montana. If you still have questions after reading this article, you should contact an experienced family law attorney for help.

What do I Need to Know About a Montana Child Support Order?

Relationships that end in break-ups or divorce still afford parents the opportunity to try to agree on financial terms, including child support. If parents can't agree on their own, a judge will decide for them.

In Montana, both parents share a proportionate percentage of the financial responsibility for their children. This means that the judge will compute the total of each parent's actual (earned) income and any imputed income to arrive at the amount the parent has available for child support. The judge will not include "unearned income" (meaning, government benefits such as SSI and TANF), veteran's benefits, income earned by other spouses, adoption subsidies, disability payments, or child support paid by other people when calculating the income available for child support. For more information about what's included in adjusted gross income and how child support is calculated in Montana, please see Child Support in Montana (Nolo). In addition to determining parental income, the court also has to look at the number of children and the amount of time they will spend with each parent.

When the judge makes the final calculations, parents will pay child support according to the amounts in this table. If you disagree with that amount, you can ask the judge to change it before it becomes final, but you'll have to provide clear and convincing evidence that the guidelines award would be unjust.

Child support orders can sometimes be changed when there is a "substantial and continuing change in circumstances," meaning that there's been a major change that's altered the income, expenses, and lives of the parents and the child. Modifications can't be retroactive, though, so you have to keep paying the current amount until and unless a judge changes it.

What if the Paying Parent Doesn't Work?

From time to time, paying parents don't pay their child support obligation. This generally happens because:

  • The paying parent voluntarily becomes unemployed. For example, a paying parent might quit an existing job or behave so badly at work that an employer is forced to fire the parent.
  • The paying parent voluntarily becomes "underemployed." Underemployment means that the paying parent is employed less than full-time, even though full-time work is available in the community. It can also mean that parents are learning less than they're capable of earning or they've earned historically. Sometimes this happens when parents ask for a reduced schedule or a position with less responsibility.
  • The paying parent is a student, whether full-time or part-time.
  • The paying parent can't prove employment status or income, possibly because the parent is being paid "under the table."

When these situations exist, Montana judges will impute income to the paying parent (meaning, the judge will assign the amount that the court thinks the paying parent could have earned) when they calculate guidelines child support.

If a parent is involuntarily unemployed (for example, was laid off) and is trying hard to find a new job, income won't be imputed to that parent. If this is happening to you, be sure to keep records of your job search efforts.

What is Imputed Income?

Montana defines "imputed income" as money that isn't actually earned by a parent but which the court attributes (assigns) anyway when it calculates child support. Imputed income can be assigned when a parent has no income at all, or it can be assigned in addition to actual income when the court believes the parent should be earning more. All parents are assumed to be capable of working at least 40 hours per week at minimum wage unless they prove otherwise, so that's the minimum level of imputed income.

Judges are allowed to impute income in any of the following circumstances:

  • a parent is unemployed
  • a parent is underemployed
  • a parent doesn't provide proof of income (a common situation when parents work for cash)
  • a parent's employment status is unknown, or
  • a parent is a student. Judges impute income to full-time students based on full-time employment for 13 weeks and half of full-time employment for the remaining 39 weeks of the year. The court imputes income to part-time students based on a full-time employment schedule for the entire year.

If the court decides to impute income, the amount that's imputed has to be based on the following factors:

  • the parent's recent work history
  • the parent's occupational and professional qualifications, and
  • existing job opportunities and earning levels in the community.

Judges can't impute income if any of the following conditions exist:

  • the reasonable costs of the paying parent's child care would offset, completely or partially, that parent's imputed income
  • the paying parent is physically or mentally disabled and can't earn income
  • a child has unusual emotional or physical needs that require the paying parent to stay at home
  • the paying parent has made diligent (thorough) efforts to find and accept suitable work or to return to self-employment, but hasn't been able to find a job, or
  • the court, after hearing the evidence, makes a finding that other circumstances exist which would make imputed income unfair. However, if this is the case, the amount of imputed income can't be eliminated. It has to be decreased only to the extent necessary to make the decision equitable (fair).


Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, Child Support Enforcement Division

Mont. Code. 40-4-204

Mont. Admin. Rule 37.62.102

Mont. Admin. Rule 37.62.103

Mont. Admin. Rule 37.62.105

Mont. Admin. Rule 37.62.106

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