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.
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.
From time to time, paying parents don't pay their child support obligation. This generally happens because:
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.
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:
If the court decides to impute income, the amount that's imputed has to be based on the following factors:
Judges can't impute income if any of the following conditions exist:
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