When a couple separates or divorces, a judge will issue an order determining child support and custody. Although both parents have a legal duty to financially provide for their children, generally the noncustodial parent (parent without primary physical custody) is responsible for paying child support to the other parent.
Once a judge determines the appropriate amount of child support, the court will issue a child support order. Parents can't deviate from the child support amounts ordered by the court. If one parent shirks his or her obligation, a court may garnish that parent's wages or federal tax refund or even issue fines in certain cases.
Child support decisions are based primarily on each parent's income and percentage of custody. Your custody award will have a direct impact on child support. Specifically, both the amount of parenting time awarded and type of custody you receive in your case will affect whether you are on the paying or receiving end of child support. But perhaps even more important is each parent's income relative to their support obligation.
Many states assign child support as a certain percentage of the paying parent's income based on the number of children. For example, if you have one child, your child support obligation may be 20% of your monthly income. If you have two children, your obligation could increase to 30% or whatever is required under your state's laws. A parent's income will directly impact that parent's support obligation. A deadbeat parent may try to hide income or quit a lucrative career as a means of lowering child support. In that kind of circumstance, a judge can impute income to that parent for purposes of calculating child support.
A judge will impute or assign additional income to a parent when it's clear that the parent can and should be earning more. When a judge imputes income, the judge will calculate child support based on a higher income amount than what the parent is actually earning. This will increase the underemployed or underreporting parent's child support obligation.
A judge won't impute income simply because a parent could be earning more. An income imputation is usually appropriate only where it's clear that one parent is choosing to earn less than is reasonable based on the parent's skillset. For example, it may be appropriate to impute income to a parent who has quit a high-paying executive job to take an entry-level position at a burger joint. It may also be appropriate to impute income to a parent who was laid off years before but refuses to seek new employment.
The parent seeking to impute income must provide evidence that the other parent is hiding funds or could be earning much more. You can prove this by producing the other parent's tax returns, employment history, educational record or other evidence that the parent is making large purchases while claiming to have little income.
Unemployment can be a difficult situation both emotionally and financially. Like other bills, a child support obligation won't go away just because you lost your job. This means that a judge probably won't reduce an unemployed parent's child support obligation unless that unemployment spans the long-term. Any amounts due under a child support award are still due and owing until your child support order is modified.
In cases where one spouse isn't working and hasn't worked for a long period of time, a judge may still impute a minimum wage income to the non-working spouse. This means that the non-working spouse could have to pay child support even without any income.
Under certain circumstances where one parent is disabled or has caretaker responsibilities that make it impossible to work, a judge may decide not to impute income—these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis. If you still have questions regarding imputed income, contact a local family law attorney for advice.