Imputing Income for Child Support in Virginia

Learn when (and how) Virginia judges may consider a parent's "imputed" income—rather than the actual amount the parent earns—when deciding how much child support to order.

By , Attorney · Harvard Law School
Updated by E.A. Gjelten, Legal Editor

Under Virginia's child support guidelines, the amount of child support one parent has to pay is primarily based on both parents' incomes, as well as the amount of time the children spend with each parent and whether the parents have other kids to support. Unfortunately, some parents may refuse to provide the required information about their finances, or they may even hide or purposefully lower their earnings in order to pay less child support.

Virginia law has a way of dealing with these parents by allowing judges to "impute" income to them under certain circumstances. Read on to learn how that works.

What Is Imputed Income?

Imputed income basically means an amount of income that a judge believes a parent is capable of earning, rather than the actual income they've reported for purposes of child support.

When Can Virginia Judges Impute Income to Parents?

Virginia law presumes that the amount of support calculated under the state's guidelines is correct in any case, unless the judge finds that it would be unfair or inappropriate under the specific circumstances. When making that decision, judges must consider all of the circumstances related to the child's best interests and the parent's ability to pay support, including a long list of specific factors. One of the items on that list is imputed income to a parent who's voluntarily unemployed or underemployed.

However, judges may not impute income when:

  • children aren't in school, and the custodial parent needs to stay home because child care isn't available (unless the cost of child care was already included in the calculation of child support), or
  • a parent is incarcerated for more than 180 days.

Also, before deciding whether to impute income, judges must consider whether parents have made reasonable decisions about their employment, such as working less in order to complete an educational or vocational program that's likely to increase their earning potential in the future.

So when a parent is unemployed or underemployed, the judge will not only look into whether that situation is voluntary, but also whether the parent had valid reasons for leaving or cutting back on work. In one case, for example, an appeals court upheld a judge's decision not to impute income to a mother who voluntarily changed jobs to one that paid less but allowed a flexible schedule, because her previous job required long hours that significantly limited the time she could spend with her children. As the court pointed out, imputed income is only one of the many factors that can affect the child's best interests. And here, the mother's decision was best for her kids overall.

(Va. Code § 20-108.1(B)(3) (2024); Murphy v. Murphy, 779 S.E.2d 236 (Va. Ct. App. 2015).)

How Do Judges Decide on an Amount of Imputed Income?

Once a judge has decided that it's appropriate to impute income to a parent, the judge will then have to figure out how much income that parent could be earning. That decision must be based on actual evidence, including:

  • the parent's earning history, especially just before voluntarily quitting or switching to a lower-paying job
  • other work history
  • the parent's education and job skills, and
  • actual job openings the parent is qualified for, along with their starting salaries.

It can be complicated to prove that imputing income is warranted under the child support guidelines, as well as establishing how much income your co-parent is capable of earning. If you're hoping to convince a judge to impute income in your case, you would be wise to contact a local family law attorney for help.

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