Imputing Income for Child Support in Texas

Learn when Texas judges may calculate child support based on a parent's imputed income rather than actual earnings, and how they decide how much a parent could be earning.

By , Retired Judge

When parents are divorced or not living together, courts will order one of them—usually the noncustodial parent (the one who has the kids less than half the time)—to pay child support. Most parents pay willingly, but some aren't so noble. They may try to concoct ways of limiting, or even completely avoiding, their support obligation by purposely lowering their income or attempting to hide it. Texas law provides courts with tools to combat those efforts, usually by imputing income to a parent.

How a Parent's Income Affects Child Support

Like every other state, Texas has child support guidelines to determine the amount of support a parent should pay. But Texas differs from most other states in that it uses what's known as the "income percentage" model to arrive at the child support figure. Rather than taking into account both parents' income, the calculation of child support in Texas is primarily based on a percentage of the noncustodial parent's net monthly resources available for paying support.

Learn all about how child support works in Texas, including what counts as net resources. (You could also read the full text of the Texas laws on child support, including the statutes mentioned below.)

What Does Imputing Income Mean?

When a judge imputes income to a parent, that means the judge will decide how much a parent could be earning and will attribute that amount to the parent in the child support calculation. Texas law allows judges to use imputed income when there's no reliable evidence of a parent's income, or when a parent is intentionally unemployed or underemployed (more on that below). Tex. Fam. Code §§ 154.066, 154.068 (2024).)

How Do Texas Judges Decide How Much Income to Impute?

When there's no evidence of a parent's actual income, Texas judges must presume that the parent at least has income equal to the federal minimum wage for a 40-hour week.

But the law also allows judges to impute beyond the minimum wage if the evidence shows that the parent could earn more than that. Whether there's no evidence of actual income or the evidence shows that the parent is intentionally underemployed or unemployed, a judge will look at the relevant circumstances when deciding on the parent's earning potential. Those circumstances include:

  • the parent's assets, residence, employment and earnings history, job search record, education and job skills, age and health, criminal history, and other barriers to employment,
  • job opportunities in the parent's community and the prevailing wages for those jobs, and
  • whether there are employers willing to hire the parent.

(Tex. Fam. Code §§ 154.068, 154.0655 (2024).)

For example, if a noncustodial parent has quit a job as a highly paid executive for no good reason and is now unemployed or working at a job that pays much less, a judge will almost certainly base child support on the parent's previous salary.

The Difference Between Voluntary and Involuntary Unemployment or Underemployment

As we've seen, Texas law allows judges to impute income to a parent whose actual income is significantly less than it could be, because the parent is intentionally underemployed or unemployed. A parent who's incarcerated should not be considered intentionally unemployed. (Tex. Fam. Code § 154.066 (2024).)

This law is not meant to punish parents who are legitimately strugging to find a suitable job or who can't work full time because of a disability or the need to stay home and care for a chronically ill child. Judges will look at the evidence to see whether unemployed or underemployed parents are actually able to earn more than they're earning now, and they'll balance the parent's needs with the child's.

However, the Texas Supreme Court has held that the law doesn't require evidence that the purpose behind unemployment or underemployment is to avoid child support. So in a case where a father quit a six-figure job without explanation and worked only sporadically after that (earning less than $5,000 total over two years), the judge didn't have to find that his reason for remaining underemployed was to lower his support payments. It was enough that he was intentionally remaining underemployed and was able to earn more, given his work history and the lack of medical evidence that he couldn't take on gainful employment. (Iliff v. Iliff, 339 S.W.3d 74 (Tex. 2011).)

What Is "Deemed" Income?

For purposes of calculating child support, a parent's net resources include things like net rental and business income. But what if a parent owns assets that aren't currently producing income—such as a house that could be rented out but is sitting empty? Texas law has another method similar to imputed income that allows judges to assign a reasonable amount of "deemed income" for these assets. Judges may also assign deemed income when a parent has voluntarily transferred an asset or intentionally reduced its actual income.

If it wouldn't cause an unreasonable financial hardship, the judge may instead order the parent to sell property that's not producting income. The proceeds could then be included in the parent's available assets for purposes of the support calculation.

(Tex. Fam. Code §§ 154.062, 154.065, 154.067 (2024).)

Do You Need a Lawyer to Claim or Object to Imputing Income?

If you believe that a judge should impute income to your child's other parent when calculating child support—or if you're the one being accused of hiding or intentionally reducing your income—you should strongly consider speaking with a lawyer.

Outside of the basic rules discussed above, it's generally up to judges to decide when it's appropriate to use a parent's potential rather than actual earnings, and how much that potential income should be. Some cases might be clear-cut, such as when a parent is obviously hiding income. But most situations are more nuanced, and there may be legitimate reasons why a parent isn't earning to capacity.

An experienced family law attorney can evaluate your case and help gather and present the kind of evidence you'll need to convince a judge of your argument for or against imputing income. The judge's decision can make a big difference in the amount of child support you'll pay or receive for years to come, so the lawyer's fee could be money well spent.

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