If you're splitting up with your child's other parent, among your most pressing questions will be whether you'll pay or receive support for your child—and, if so, how much the child support will be. Like all states, California has a uniform guideline for calculating child support. But unlike some other states, California's guideline isn't based just on the parents' incomes. It's a complicated formula that also takes into account how much time each parent spends with the child.
Whether parents agree on support or a judge has to decide for them, the rules in the state's guideline will still apply. So it's important to understand the basics of how child support works in California, including how to get help collecting support and how to change the amount of support you're already paying or receiving.
California provides an online child support calculator that you can use to estimate the amount of support that might apply in your case. But you should know that a judge could very well order a different amount of support in your case, after taking into account various factors allowed under California law.
We'll discuss those factors below, as well as explain the numbers that go into the child support calculator. That way, you can be better prepared when gathering all the information you'll need to use the calculator. And if you believe a different amount of support would be more appropriate, you'll have the context to back up your argument.
As you'll see below, California's formula for calculating child support is very complicated. However, the basic outline is fairly straightforward: As a general rule, the greater the difference between the parents' incomes and the less time the higher-earning parent spends with the children, the more child support that parent will owe.
The formula is used whenever child support needs to be calculated as part of a court case, including:
Before you can calculate the amount of child support, you must gather certain information:
Gross income includes:
In some cases, California judges may "impute" income to parents who've intentionally lowered their actual income to avoid their duty to support their children, by using their "earning capacity" instead of their actual income. When judges use earning capacity, they'll consider the children's best interests as well as a number of circumstances affecting the parent's ability to earn, including their assets, earnings history, job skills, and employment barriers. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4058 (2023).)
To figure net disposable income, you'll subtract a number of items from gross income, including:
(Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4059, 4060, 4070, 4071 (2023).)
The guideline presumes that parents with primary physical custody will directly contribute a significant part of their resources to supporting their children. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4053, 4058, 4059, 4070, 4071 (2023).)
The formula California uses to calculate child support is: CS = K (HN - (H%)(TN)).
Here's what the letters mean:
(Cal. Fam. Code § 4055 (2023).)
After calculating the guideline amount for one child, you won't simply multiply the result by the number of children covered by the support order. Instead, the guideline provides specific multipliers, such as:
The law provides multipliers for up to 10 kids. These multipliers sometimes change, but the state's online calculator should include the current numbers. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4055(b)(4) (2023).)
Traditionally, mothers had physical custody of their children after divorce, while fathers earned more and paid child support. The gender pay gap persists, but it's much more common in contemporary divorced families for both parents to spend significant time with their kids.
Higher-earning parents are still typically the ones who pay child support. However, the formula in California's guideline sometimes results in a negative amount of child support. When that happens, the lower-earning parent generally pays that amount to the high earner. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4055(b)(5) (2023).)
For example, say there isn't a big difference between the parents' earnings, and the higher-earning parent has the children more than half of the time. If the formula results in −$200 for the amount of child support, the low earner would have to pay $200 a month to the high earner—unless the low earner can justify a different result based on the legal reasons for departing from the guideline (discussed below).
In addition to the basic guideline support amount, parents might be required to contribute to certain expenses for the children's benefit. Some of these add-ons are mandatory, while others are discretionary (meaning they're up to the judge).
As additional child support, judges must order parents to pay:
When it's appropriate, judges may order parents to pay additional support for:
(Cal. Fam. Code § 4062 (2023).)
When a judge orders child support add-ons, the parents will generally contribute an equal amount for those additional expenses. However, a judge may order the parents to contribute unequal amounts when a parent provides documentation showing that the different apportionment would be more appropriate under the circumstances. For example, if one parent makes far less than the other, a judge may order the high earner to pay more than half of the child care costs that are needed for both of them to work outside the home.
If an unequal allocation is warranted, the judge will first calculate the standard guideline amount and then apportion the add-ons between the parents in proportion to their net disposable incomes—after making allowed adjustments to income, including for spousal support payments. (Cal. Fam. Code § 4061 (2023).
California law presumes that the amount of child support calculated under the guideline formula will be proper in any individual case, but it does allow for departures from the guideline amount in some situations.
If you want to argue for a different amount of support, you'll need to present evidence to convince a judge that application of the guideline would be "unjust or inappropriate" because of the special circumstances in your case, including:
(Cal. Fam. Code § 4057 (2023).)
In addition to proving that applying the guideline would be inappropriate for one of the reasons listed in the law, you'll also need to demonstrate that the departure from the guideline would be consistent with the basic child support principles in California law, including the following:
(Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4053, 4057 (2023).)
Parents may—and usually do—agree with each other about the amount of child support, either as part of an overall marital settlement agreement or just on the support issue. To do that in your case, you can start out by using the state's calculator to estimate the guideline amount of support. Then, if you want to negotiate for any adjustments to that amount, you could apply the rules (discussed above) for deviating from the guideline.
Be aware, however, that you will need to submit your agreement (or "stipulation") to the court for approval. If the agreed amount of support is below the guideline amount, the judge won't approve it unless you and the other parent(s) declare that:
(Cal. Fam. Code § 4065 (2023).)
Thanks to the guideline, it's usually easier to reach an agreement on the amount of child support than other issues in divorce. But negotiations about support often get tangled up with decisions about the exact amount of timeshare—because that will affect the child support calculations. If you and your spouse are having trouble working out agreements on these issues, you may turn to mediation for help.
Generally, the legal obligation to pay child support lasts until the child turns 18. There are exceptions to that cut-off, including:
(Cal. Fam. Code §§ 3901, 3910 (2023).)
If you're seeking child support when your marriage is ending, you'll simply make the request in the petition and other paperwork when you file for divorce in California. You can also apply for temporary child support while your case is proceeding.
When you aren't married to your child's other parent, you may apply for child support services from the California Child Support Services Agency. If needed, the agency may also help you establish the child's legal parentage. It may also provide assistance with collecting and enforcing child support in California.
Once a child support order is in place, it's not necessarily set in stone. Judges may order a change (called a "modification") in child support when they believe it's necessary. If the existing order was based on both parents' agreement for a below-guideline amount of support, one parent may request an increase in support at any time, without showing that their situation has changed. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 3651, 4065(d) (2023).)
In all other situations, however, California courts have consistently held that anyone requesting a modification must show that there has been a significant change in circumstances that requires a different amount of support. Usually, judges will grant a modification when the changed circumstances would justify an increase or decrease of 20% or $50 per month, whichever is less.
Some common reasons for modifying support include when:
Keep in mind that when one parent requests a child support modification, the judge must consider both parents' current financial situations and time-share with the child. That could lead to unexpected results—for instance, when the primary custodial parent has also seen an income reduction.
Your local child support agency will provide a review of your case (for free) to see if a modification is justified. Even if the agency denies your request, you may still ask a judge to modify the support order. Your local Family Law Facilitator or a family law attorney can help with your request.