The issue of child support in Tennessee can be contentious, whether as part of a divorce or between unmarried parents. Fortunately, it can be fairly easily resolved because Tennessee—like all states—has a mechanism geared to ending the dispute quickly. It's known as the child support guidelines.
In Tennessee, both parents must support their children financially. The amount of support depends primarily on the number of children, the combined income of both parents, and "parenting time" (the amount of time a child spends with each parent). But other factors may also come into play.
Parents who care for the child most of the time (called the "primary residential parent" or "custodial parent") usually receive the child support payments, because the law assumes that these parents already spend their share of the support obligation directly on the child. So the parent who spends less time with the child (called the "alternate residential parent" or "noncustodial parent") typically makes the payments.
Tennessee's child support guidelines spell out the detailed rules for calculating the amount of support. You can use the state's online child support calculator to find out the proper amount of support. After you've filled in all the information, the calculator will create a document known as the child support worksheet, which you'll submit to the court.
Parents are free to pay more than the amount based on the guidelines, but usually not less (more on that below).
To estimate child support payments in Tennessee, there are a few steps you need to follow. We've summarized those steps below, but you can also find detailed instructions in the guidelines themselves.
To calculate each parent's "adjusted gross income" (AGI), add up all income, from all sources. For child support purposes, gross income includes, but isn't limited to:
The following are not included in gross income:
(Tenn. Dept. Human Svcs. Rule 1240-2-4-.04(3) (2022).)
Because both parents have the obligation to support their children, you need to combine their AGIs when calculating child support.
The guidelines include a support schedule, which lists the applicable support figure, based on the parents' combined AGI and the number of children being supported. Remember, this number is the total amount of child support due. There's more work to be done to determine each parent's share of support.
Generally, each parent covers a proportionate share of support based on how much each contributed to the combined AGI. But this amount may be adjusted for parenting time.
For example, say Parent A has adjusted gross income of $1,200 a month, and Parent B has $2,650. Taken together, their combined AGI is $3,850. Based on the support schedule (revised in October 2021) and that combined AGI, the basic child support obligation for two children is $1,000 a month. Parent A's income amounts to 31% of the total combined incomes, so this parent is responsible for $310 (31% of $1,000) of the basic child support obligation. Parent B's income is 69% of the total income, so Parent B is responsible for $690 (69% of $1,000) in support. Be aware that the figures in the child support schedule can change any time, so these numbers are for illustration purposes only.
Calculating support becomes slightly more complicated in some situations. The guidelines are geared to scenarios where one parent is the custodial parent and the other is the noncustodial parent. But there are other parenting arrangements that would call for different calculations of child support, such as:
The guidelines call for an adjustment of child support in both of these parenting scenarios. (Tenn. Dept. Hum. Svcs. Rule 1240-2-4-.08(2)(c) (2022).)
In addition to the support figure reached under the schedule, the guidelines allow adjustments for the following expenses:
These expenses are divided the same way as the basic child support obligation—each parent covers a proportionate share based on individual income. (Tenn. Dept. Hum. Svcs. Rule 1240-2-4-.04(8) (2022).)
Unfortunately, some parents purposely decrease their income in an effort to reduce or completely avoid paying child support. Not a smart move. When a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, a judge may impute income for the purpose of child support. That means the judge will come up with an amount the parent should be making, based on criteria such as employment history, education, and training. The judge may then use this imputed amount to calculate the parent's child support obligation.
This isn't to say there can't be legitimate reasons for a parent's income to be less than you'd anticipate. For example, a parent might become permanently disabled. Or perhaps a parent has to stay at home to care for the children because the cost of childcare would be more than the parent would be able to earn, considering the parent's skill-set. It's up to judges to determine whether parents have a good reason for not earning as much as they could theoretically.
Judges may also impute income in cases where parents don't provide reliable evidence of their actual income. (Tenn. Dept. of Hum. Svcs. Rule 1240-2-4-.04(3)(a)(2) (2022).)
A judge will start out by presuming that the amount calculated under the guidelines (with adjustments for parenting time and allowed expenses) is the proper amount in any case. Sometimes, however, the total amount—or the way that number is divided between the parents—might be unfair. Judges may order an amount of child support that's different than the guideline amount, but only if you can show that applying the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate and that a different amount of support would be in the child's best interests.
Here are some examples of circumstances that might warrant a deviation from the child support guidelines:
(Tenn. Dept. of Hum. Svcs. Rule 1240-2-4-.07(2) (2022).)
Parents may always reach an agreement on the amount of child support, perhaps as part of an overall divorce settlement agreement. But a judge will need to review the agreement and will only approve it if it follows the guidelines. That means that, just as when a judge decides on the amount, the order must include written findings that applying the guideline would be unjust or inappropriate, and that the agreed support amount would be in the child's best interests. (Tenn. Dept. of Hum. Svcs. Rule 1240-2-4-.01(2)(b) (2022).)
Usually, you (or the other parent) will simply request child support as part of the process of filing for divorce in Tennessee. That said, the issue of child support can come up outside of the divorce arena. An obvious example is when a child's parents were never married. Children are entitled to support whatever their parents' marital status.
If you receive financial assistance through Tennessee's Families First program (Tennessee's version of the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, or TANF), the Department of Human Services (DHS) automatically refers your case to a local child support office. If you're not a Families First recipient, then you'll have to apply for child support services from the DHS. The agency can also help you establish your child's legal paternity (parenthood) if that's an issue in your case.
For non-Families First recipients, the federal government requires states to assess an annual fee of $35 per year for child support services. The fee takes effect after $550 of child support payments have been received in your case.
If you have questions regarding child support, you can also contact your local child support office.
Most child support payments are made through income withholding. In other words, when you owe child support, your employer will take the money out of your paycheck and send it to Tennessee's Child Support Disbursement Unit. If income withholding isn't an option in a particular case (for instance, when a parent is self employed), the state provides alternative payment methods. A parent responsible for child support can pay with MoneyGram, TouchPay, by mail, online automatic withdrawal, by phone, by mobile website, or credit card.
For recipients of child support, the first support payment will be by check mailed from the state. After that, the parent will receive a debit card (the Tennessee Way2Go Card, which is a MasterCard Debit Card), and future support payments will be applied to that card.
You can find more child support information on the Tennessee Department of Human Services website.
Both parents have the right to request a modification of a child support order at any time. However, the parent seeking the adjustment must prove there's a "significant variance" between the existing support figure and the proposed figure. A significant variance means a minimum 15% difference (7.5% for a low-income parent) between the existing amount of support and the proposed amount. (Tenn. Dept. of Hum. Svcs. Rule 1240-2-4-.05(2) (2022).)
You don't have to meet the significant-variance rule when you're requesting a modification because of your child's changed health care needs.
You may request a DHS review of your child support order to see if you qualify for a modification. However, if there was a complete review of your case within the past two years, you'll need to provide information showing a change in circumstances. Relevant changes could include (but aren't limited to) the following:
Be aware that just because you've asked to have the amount of child support changed, that doesn't guarantee that the judge will grant your request.
Under Tennessee law, children are no longer considered minors when they reach the age of 18. That's when a parent's obligation to support the child would normally end. However, if their child is still in high school, parents continue to be responsible for support until the child graduates from high school or the child's high school class graduates, whichever happens first. (Tenn. Code § 34-1-102(b) (2022).)
Some parents may agree to provide financial support beyond the legal cut-off point. For instance, their support agreement may call for contributions to a child's college expenses.
You should know that even after your obligation to pay child support ends, you'll still be held accountable for any past-due support (also known as arrearages).
If a parent isn't paying support on time, the state can use a number of methods to enforce the support order, including:
Even if parents believe there's a legitimate reason for not paying child support, they may not take it upon themselves to abruptly stop making payments. Instead, they must request a support modification. As with all states, Tennessee takes enforcement of child support orders very seriously. In addition to the support enforcement measures listed above, refusing to obey a court order could result in contempt of court charges, which could possibly send a delinquent parent to jail.