Child support is a monthly payment that parents make to help cover the costs of raising a child. Generally, the parent who cares for a child most of the time (called the custodial parent) tends to receive child support payments. This is because the law assumes that the custodial parent already spends money directly on the child. The parent with less parenting time (called the non-custodial parent) usually makes the payments, but a court can order both parents to pay child support.
Typically, parents must pay child support until the child turns 18. There are some exceptions, however. Support may continue until the age of 19 if the child is still in high school and lives with a parent. The support period could be shorter if the child marries or registers a domestic partnership, joins the military, or otherwise becomes self-supporting. On the other hand, parents could agree to support a child for a longer period of time or, if a child is unable to become self-supporting due to a disability, a court could order continued support.
The payment amount depends on California’s child support guidelines.
The guidelines are a mathematical formula. They are based on a number of factors, explained below. The formula itself isn’t rocket science, but the details can seem intimidating. Rather than getting lost in the details, you can estimate your fair share of support by using the California Guidelines Calculator. It’s also useful to download the California Guideline Child Support Calculator User Guide.
Although a court presumes that the number given by the guidelines is the appropriate amount of child support, occasionally the result can be unfair. This tends to happen in special circumstances where parents have different time-sharing arrangements for different children (meaning, for example, the older child lives with Parent A 80% of the time while the younger child lives with Parent B 80% of the time); or where the parents have substantially equal time-sharing, but one parent has a much lower or higher percentage of income used for housing; or where the child has special medical needs. In cases like these, among others, a court could order a higher or lower amount.
Parents, too, can agree to pay more and in limited situations, agree to pay less. In any event, a court must approve the final amount. A court will only approve an agreement between the parents for support below the guidelines if the parents declare that they were fully aware of their rights concerning support and not forced into the agreement. They must also explain that the lesser amount is in the child’s best interest and that the child’s needs will be met. This option is not available to parents who have applied for or receive public assistance, like TANF, for example. A parent who receives public assistance may agree to support payments that are at or above the guidelines amount. The local child support services agency, however, must also agree to it.
To get started, you will need both parents’ net disposable income. Net disposable income is the difference between gross income and what counts as deductions for child support purposes. Gross income includes everything from salaries and commissions to unemployment and social security benefits. Most other income sources, even lottery winnings and spousal support (alimony) received, also count as gross income. You can exclude child and spousal support payments actually paid and money from public assistance programs like CalWORKs.
A parent who intends to avoid paying child support by refusing to work or working less rarely gets away with it. This is because a court can "impute" income, meaning, come up with an amount of income that this parent should be earning based on factors like employment history, education, and training. The state’s intent is to hold a deadbeat parent accountable to the family, not punish the parent who stayed home with young children.
Once you’ve determined gross income, you can deduct state and federal income taxes, mandatory union dues, and health insurance premiums, among other things. For lists of what to include and what to deduct, you can see the California Guideline Child Support Calculator User Guide.
In addition to the parents’ net disposable incomes, you will also need to know:
Relevant costs tend to involve health care, day care, and travel. A court will order one or both parents to provide for the child’s health care – including vision and dental – and to pay for child care needed for a parent’s employment, education, or training. The court also has discretion to order additional payment for the child’s education or special needs, and for a parent’s travel expenses for visitation.
After you enter the parents’ disposable net income and all of the other factors into the child support calculator, you will have a good idea of the amount of support due. This number remains an estimate, however, until you have a court order.
If you find this process overwhelming, you are not alone. Every county in California has a family law facilitator who gives free assistance with family law matters, including child support calculations. You must provide accurate financial information, however, and be prepared for limited office hours.
Once a child support order is in place, it is not necessarily set in stone. If a child support order is below the guidelines amount, a parent can ask for a change (called a modification) at any time. If the order was for an amount at or above the guidelines, then either parent can still ask for a modification, but there must be a significant change in financial or time-share circumstances.
Some common reasons for modifying support are when a parent involuntarily loses a job, is making less or more income, or there is a shift in time-share. Other good reasons for changing a child support order are when a parent has another child with a different partner or when a parent ends up in jail.
Keep in mind that one parent’s lost job or new baby may not be the only change affecting the amount of support. Once a parent asks a court to modify a child support order, the court must consider both parents’ financial situations and time-share with the child at the current time. This could mean that even where a parent’s income has decreased, that parent’s child support payment goes up. How is that possible? It could be because of time-share. For example, support payments tend to go up when a parent’s percentage of time-share goes down. The percentage of time-share would need to be recalculated (if, in fact, it has changed) along with any changes in income and may lead to a surprising result.
An unexpected increase could also occur simply because the parent requesting a modification doesn’t know that the other parent experienced a loss in income as well, or perhaps lost the health benefits that had been covering the child. To read more about how to (and whether you should) ask for a modification in child support, see the California Courts webpage on Changing a Child Support Order.
The California Courts self-help website provides many helpful links including those to each county’s family law facilitator, local child support agencies, the California Guidelines Child Support Calculator, and the California Guideline Child Support Calculator User Guide.
You can read the law on child support in the California Family Code, particularly sections 4000-4014 and 4050-4076.