Imputing Income for Child Support in North Carolina

Learn the process of imputing income in North Carolina and how it impacts child support.

Break-ups and divorces are usually messy - even under the best of circumstances - but even more so when a couple has children. Without kids, it’s easier to move on with your life - to walk away from the relationship without looking back. But when you have kids, your ex will always be a part of your life. Plus, you’ll have to find a way to support your kids financially and navigating that dynamic that can be tricky because money matters tend to bring out the ugly side in many people.

Both parents have an ongoing obligation to provide financial support for their children, but North Carolina law assumes that the custodial parent (meaning, the parent who lives with the children the majority of the time) is already providing the correct level of support. Therefore, the non-custodial parent (the one with less parenting time) almost always winds up paying child support to the custodial or "receiving" parent simply because they have different income and expense levels and the kids may not spend an equal amount of time with both parents.

In the aftermath of a bitter break-up, it can be tempting for the paying parent to try to get even with the receiving parent by withholding child support. But refusing to pay child support only hurts your children. Child support may be funneled into the hands of the receiving parent, but the legal reality is that  child support belongs to the children and can only be used to pay their expenses.  It’s not money that the receiving spouse can use to pay frivolous personal expenses.

When paying parents don't work hard enough or falsely claim to have no income available to pay child support, the courts sometimes respond by "imputing" income to them. This means that the court will issue a child support order that assumes paying parents are earning a certain amount of money, even when they really aren't.

This article will explain when and how courts impute income for child support purposes in North Carolina. 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 North Carolina Child Support Order?

When your relationship ends and you need to make financial arrangements for your children, you have two basic choices. First, you can negotiate with your ex and agree upon child support. This is a better outcome because you retain control instead of letting a judge decide for you. The second option is to go to court.

North Carolina is a guidelines child support state. This means that the court will use  worksheets  to calculate each parent’s gross income. Gross income is all income a parent makes, regardless of the source. Gross income is pre-tax dollars and doesn’t include allowable deductions like union dues or retirement payments. Generally speaking, it includes wages and salaries, unemployment and disability payments, social security, and worker’s compensation, among other things.

Based on each parent’s gross income and the amount of time each parent spends with the child, each parent will pay a percentage of the child's basic cash support, insurance, child care, and medical expenses.

The guidelines apply to all cases, so if you think the guidelines amount is unfair, you have to go to court and ask the judge to change it. You’ll have to convince the judge that the guidelines amount isn’t the right amount to meet the child’s needs in light of each parent’s ability to pay. If the judge accepts your argument, the guidelines amount will be increased or decreased to a more fair amount.

For more information about what's included in adjusted gross income and how child support is calculated in North Carolina, please see  Child Support in North Carolina (Nolo).

What if the court issued a guidelines child support order, but things have changed and you need more or less money? You can go back to court at any time and file a motion asking the court to modify (change) or vacate (eliminate) the previous order. The court will grant your request only if you can prove that there are now “changed circumstances,” meaning that there has been at least a 15% change in a parent’s income.

What if the Paying Parent Claims to Have no Income or Stops Working?

When paying parents shirk their child support obligations, they usually do one of two things:

  • The paying parent  voluntarily  becomes unemployed. For example, paying parents might quit their jobs or choose to perform so badly at work that employers must fire them.
  • The paying parent  voluntarily  becomes "underemployed." Underemployment means that the paying parent isn't working the usual amount of hours or earning pay at the regular rate. This usually happens because the paying parent asks for fewer hours or accepts a lower-paying job with less responsibility.

When parents are  voluntarily  unemployed or underemployed, judges will impute income to the paying parent. This means that the child support order will say that the paying parent earned a certain amount of money, regardless of what was actually earned. The judge is saying that the paying parent is capable of earning more money.

But what if a paying parent is  involuntarily  unemployed or  involuntarily  underemployed? For example, what if hard-working parents are laid off through no fault of their own? In these cases, the court will take a close look at the evidence to make sure that the unemployment or underemployment is truly involuntary. As long the parent's earning power hasn't diminished because of their own bad choices, the court won't impute income.

If you lose your job or have less income through no fault of your own, make sure you document everything that happens, paying special attention to your job search efforts. That way you can prove that you're trying hard to work at your full capacity.

What is Imputed Income?

When the court computes the income that a paying parent  could and should  have been earning and includes it in a child support order, the court is "imputing" income to the paying parent. It doesn't matter that the parent hasn't actually earned the imputed amount. The judge believes that the parent is capable of paying child support and should have had earned money in the imputed amount. Judges can even impute income when they make an initial decision about the amount of a parent’s gross income.

When a court decides whether it will impute income, it has to ask questions about the voluntariness of the parent’s unemployment or underemployment. For example, in  Metz v. Metz, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that it’s proper to impute income to a medical professional who lost his well-paying hospital job upon conviction for sexual battery of a minor. Even though the parent was incarcerated and incapable of working, it was proper to impute income based on his previous earning capacity because he chose to engage in criminal activity that resulted in imprisonment. This case is important because it highlights that when a parent is unemployed or underemployed voluntarily or because of bad faith or wrongful conduct, then the court has the authority to impute income to that parent based on previous earning capacity.


The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Child Support Services

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.4

N.C. Gen. Stat. § 50-13.7

Metz v. Metz, 711 S.E.2d 737 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011).

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