Child Support in Tennessee

Find out how child support is determined in Tennessee, and how those payments are modified.

Updated by , Retired Judge

Both Parents are Responsible for Child Support

In Tennessee, both parents must financially support their children. The amount of support depends primarily on the number of children, the combined income of both parents, and parenting time. But other factors may also come into play.

The parent who cares for the child most of the time (called the primary residential parent or custodial parent) tends to receive the child support payments because the law assumes this parent spends money directly on the child. The parent with less time (called the alternate residential parent or noncustodial parent) typically makes the payments.

You can estimate your fair share of support by using the state's child support guidelines. Among other things, the guidelines provide a support schedule, which you can find at the end of the guidelines document in section 1240-2-4-.09. Parents are free to pay more than the amount given by the guidelines, but not less. In any event, a court must approve the final amount.

Estimating Child Support Payments in Tennessee

To estimate child support payments in Tennessee, you first need to know each parent's adjusted gross income (AGI). To calculate adjusted gross income, take all income from all sources and then subtract any deductions that may apply.

For child support purposes, income includes salaries, wages, tips, and commissions, but also pensions and retirement plans. Even without employment, chances are a parent still has income in the form of Social Security payments, unemployment compensation, or workers' compensation benefits.

Among other things, income also includes alimony (spousal support) received from previous marriages, and capital gains on investments. Gifts and prizes (like lottery winnings) count too.

For a list of what to include as income, see Rule 1240-2-4-.04 of the guidelines.

The following are excluded from gross income:

  • child support payments received by either parent for the benefit of children of another relationship
  • benefits received from various public assistance programs such as Families First (Tennessee's version of the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program), food stamps, and SSI
  • the child's income from any source, including, but not limited to, trust income and Social Security benefits drawn on the child's disability, and
  • an Adoption Assistance subsidy under Tennessee's Interstate Compact on Adoption Assistance.

You can find more information on deductions and credits in section 1240-2-4-.04 of the guidelines, and also in the credits worksheet, located under section 1240-2-4-.08. Additionally, the Tennessee Department of Human Services provides a child support calculator and worksheet, which you can access here.

After calculating income and applicable deductions, you're left with each parent's AGI.

The next step would be to add the parents' AGIs together and look at the child support schedule to get your basic child support obligation. This number is the total amount of child support that the parents must divide between themselves.

Generally, each parent covers a proportionate share of support based on how much each contributed to the combined AGI. (This amount, however, 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.

For two children, the basic child support obligation for $3,850 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 $1000) in support. Be aware that the figures in the child support schedule are subject to change, so consider the numbers used in this paragraph to be for illustration purposes only.

Calculating support becomes slightly more complicated in certain situations involving parenting time. The guidelines are geared to scenarios in which one parent is the custodial parent and the other is the non-custodial parent. But there are other arrangements that would call for different calculations of child support.

One such arrangement is known as "equal parenting" (sometimes referred to as "joint custody"). Here, the child or children spend 50% of the time with each parent. Another arrangement is called "split parenting". In this case, the parents have two or more children, and each parent is the custodial parent for at least one child. For example, the older child lives primarily with Parent A, while the younger child lives mostly with Parent B. In both of these parenting arrangements, the court will have to adjust child support accordingly. You can read more about this in section 1240-2-4-.08 of the guidelines.

In addition to the support figure reached under the guidelines schedule, additional expenses for the child's health/dental insurance premium, recurring uninsured medical expenses, and work-related childcare will be included in child support. This amount is divided in the same way as the basic child support obligation—each parent covers a proportionate share based on individual income.

Imputed Income for Child Support

Sometimes parents purposely decrease their income in an effort to reduce or completely avoid paying child support. Not a wise move. When a parent is willfully unemployed or underemployed, a court can "impute" income, meaning come up with an amount the parent should be making, based on criteria such as employment history, education, and training. The court can 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. A parent becoming permanently disabled would be an example. Or perhaps a parent stays 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 the court to determine the viability of the parent's reason for an apparent income deficiency.

Note that the court can also impute income in cases where parents fail to provide sufficient evidence of their income.

Deviating From the Tennessee Guidelines

A court will presume that the amount given by the guidelines, with adjustments for parenting time and health expenses, is the right amount to support your child. Yet sometimes the total amount, or the way that number is divided between the parents, might be unfair. A court will only deviate from the guidelines, however, if you can show both that the amount would be unjust or inappropriate and that changing it is in the best interests of the child.

Although there are no hard and fast rules to measure the fairness of a child support figure, some common reasons for adjustment have to do with travel costs if the distance between parents is substantial, or extraordinary expenses having to do with education or medical needs. In these situations, a court has discretion to do what it thinks is best in your particular case. You can read more about this in section 1240-2-4-.07 of the guidelines.

How Is Child Support Paid?

Most child support payments are made through income withholding. In other words, your employer takes the support amount out of your paycheck, and sends it to Tennessee's State Disbursement Unit. If income withholding isn't an option in a particular case (you sometimes see this with self-employed parents) the state provides alternative payment methods. You can use MoneyGram, mail, or online, by automatic withdrawal, phone, 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.

For more information on the methods of paying and receiving child support, click here.

Modifying a Child Support Order in Tennessee

Both parents have the right to request a review of a child support order for possible modification (adjustment) at any time. However, the parent seeking the modification must prove there's a significant variance between the existing support figure and the proposed figure.

If there's been a complete review of the case within 2 years of the request, the law requires the parent seeking the review to provide the child support caseworker with information to show there's been a change in circumstances before the state will begin a new review.

Relevant changes in circumstances could include, but aren't limited to:

  • either parent has an additional child for whom the parent is legally responsible and actually supporting, which child wasn't included on the most recent credit worksheet
  • either parent has a qualified other child who was included on the last credit worksheet, but who is emancipated or deceased
  • either parent has a significant increase or decrease in income. (This change could be from such things as a job loss or change in employment, an inheritance, lottery winnings, or other source), and
  • a child supported by the order has become disabled.

For support orders entered on or after January 18, 2005, a "significant variance" for adjustment requires a minimum 15% difference (or 7.5% for a low income parent) between the amount of the proposed order and the amount of the existing order. (Different rules apply to orders from before January 18, 2005.)

Additionally, the necessity of providing for a child's health care needs is a basis for modification of a support order, irrespective of whether an adjustment in the amount of child support is warranted by the other factors the court looks at.

Note that Families First cases are reviewed every 3 years, without request by either parent.

Be aware that a request for modification doesn't guarantee that the court will grant an adjustment.

For general information on modifying a child support order, take a look at the article How to Increase Child Support Payments.

Termination of Child Support

Under Tennessee law, when children reach the age of 18 they are no longer considered minors. That's when a parent's obligation to support the child would normally end. However, parents continue to be responsible for the support of a child after the child reaches 18 if the child is in high school. That duty of support continues until the child graduates from high school, or the class of which the child is a member when the child reaches 18 graduates, whichever occurs first.

Just because your obligation to pay child support may end, as per the previous paragraph, you'll still be held accountable for any past due support payments (arrearages).

Enforcement of Tennessee Child Support Orders

If the parent obligated to pay child support isn't making payments in a timely fashion, the state can employ a number of methods to enforce the support order, including:

  • placing liens on the parent's property
  • revoking various licenses the parent may have
  • seizing bank accounts
  • denying passports, and
  • reporting the delinquency to credit bureaus.

For a more in-depth discussion of child support enforcement, check out the article Enforcing Child Support Orders: Dealing With a Deadbeat Parent.

For more information on Tennessee child support, visit the Department of Human Services website.

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