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DIY Divorce Guide

How to Calculate Child Support Payments with a DIY Divorce

Complete divorce guide with state requirements and laws.
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A parent filing their own divorce often has no idea how much he or she should pay in child support as the non-custodial parent. Child support questions are the most commonly asked questions in a child custody action, particularly by the pro se divorce filers. Many parents estimate child support using an online child support worksheet only to have the Judge order a very different amount. Child support calculators often deliver a rough estimate because each state uses unique variables to determine a monthly child support obligation.

Child Support Cannot Be Ignored

Usually, child support is court-ordered payments the non-custodial parent pays to the custodial parent. Both parents, married or divorced, must provide their children with necessities, which is why child support cannot be ignored.

Often parents are under the mistaken belief that child support is for the parent to use; this is not the case, child support is always for the benefit of the child. Child support cannot be waived. A child has a legal right to support, and no parent can give this away.

Parents may agree that no child support will be paid from one to the other, but the court will have final say as to whether this action is appropriate. It is not uncommon, especially when the parent's incomes and time spent with the child are close to equal.

Divorced parents should not use child support and visitation as weapons against one another. Child support is not payment for the privilege of visiting the children; it is an obligation. Failure to pay it is contempt of court.

Support must be used for the children. Unlike alimony, child support is not tax deductible to the payor, or taxable to the payee.

The obligation to pay support continues until the child is emancipated, as defined by state law, or by the parents in the Marital Settlement Agreement. 

Child Support Calculations Vary

Some considerations are common to all states, for example, the number of children involved. However, jurisdictions vary in the determination and calculation of child support. In determining child support, the court considers child support either parent receives or pays in conjunction with previous marriages and whether either parent now lives with a new partner or a spouse who contributes to household expenses. Other factors include which parent is paying health insurance and its cost, day care and its cost, union dues and amount, and the ages of the children.

Judges deviate from the calculation formula for their state to account for unique circumstances. The states have support guidelines, but judges deviate from them as needed. Parents can use the state child support worksheet to determine an amount of child support to agree upon. If they decided to deviate from this amount, the court will typically review it to make sure it is a meaningful deviation. Judges prefer when divorcing parents can come to an agreement on the child support obligation because they expect them to know their financial situation and family need better than they ever could, but at the same time they are required to make sure the monthly support amount is adequate.

When calculating child support, certain state laws use what is called the income shares model, wherein child support is determined by figuring out the amount of support that would have been available to the child if the family had remained intact, or the percentage of income model, wherein child support is a percentage of the income of the parent obligated to pay the child support (the non-custodial parent).

New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Arkansas, Alabama, Texas, Nevada, North Dakota, Alaska uses the percentage of income model; three states, Montana, Hawaii and Delaware use the Melson Formula, which is a modified version of the Income Shares Model. The other states use the Income Shares Model.

Most states use the income shares model in which the court attempts to proportional costs of child rearing based on the income of both parts. For example, suppose parents have a combined income of $100,000 -- $75,000 from Dad, $25,000 from Mom. The judge, consulting the jurisdiction’s support charts and allowing from deviation, decides their son requires $1,000. Therefore the judge orders Dad to pay $750 per month, which is 75 percent of the total, and Mom to pay $250, which is 25 percent of the total.

Some states use the percentage of income routine, in which only the income of the non-custodial parent determines the award. For example, Dad’s $75,000 a year income might be assessed at 15 percent, ($75,000 x 15 percent = $11,250) so he would pay $937.50 per month ($11,250 ÷ 12 = $937.50).

Child Support Worksheets and Guidelines

Every state offers some way for parents to estimate child support payments, typically with downloadable child support worksheets. The child support worksheets require such information as the monthly salaries of the parents, the percentage of time the child spends with either parent, and any other benefits or tax credits. Based on this information, the child support calculator estimates how much both parent should owe in monthly child support payments. These worksheets are available inside your 3StepDivorceTM account to be completed as part of your divorce paperwork.

Many external factors may also affect the monthly child support obligation. Emergency costs, daycare expenses, private school tuition, and specialized healthcare all are likely to not be taken into consideration in the worksheet calculation. These additional things should be considered when filing your own divorce, otherwise the agreed upon amount may be changed by the Judge before your divorce can become final.

Most states allow parents to come up with their own custody plans determining who has what type of custody and the percentage of time the child will spend at each parent's respective house. Regardless of what the worksheet child support amount is, many parents choose to negotiate a reasonable amount of child support between them and incorporate this amount into their divorce papers. However, the judge has the discretion to modify anything regarding the children if he or she believes the terms are unfair or not in the best interests of the child.

The best way to protect child support rights is to consult a child support lawyer to determine a fair child support amount within the bounds of the law. Additionally, a mediator can help bring the parents together to work out a plan.

The Child Support Order

There are many factors that determine child support including whether one party has sole custody or whether both parents are awarded joint custody.

When one party has sole custody, the other party typically would be ordered to pay child support. When joint custody is awarded, support obligations are based on how much each party earns and the percentage of time the child spends with each party. Because each state sets up its own child support system, there is considerable variation between states in how they calculate child support payments. However, most states evaluate the following:

  • all financial requirements of the child, this includes covering expenses like daycare or education, or if the child has any special needs that must be addressed;
  • the needs and any income the custodial parent has;
  • the ability to pay child support of the noncustodial parent;
  • the standard of living the child is accustom to before the parents decided to separate or divorce.

Parents are often obligated to detail their financial situation to the court, including monthly income and expenses. These documents are called Financial Affidavits or Income and Expense Statements and these documents are included inside your 3StepDivorceTM account as part of the paperwork that is filed with the court.

The rationale is that a parent should not be able to avoid supporting his or her child by taking a poorer paying job because the child's needs are always paramount. For example, the court will not look with favor on the case of a brain surgeon who abandons his practice to become a street musician because it considers the child's future more important than a parent's desires or dreams. Thus, in this case, the judge considers what a parent could earn versus what he or she actually does.

After child support is ordered by the court, a Judge will only modify it if there is a significant change in circumstances. These changes could include added income, one parent or the other switches employment, either parent becomes disabled, the child’s needs have increased or an increase in the cost of living.

A Judge may issue a temporary modification if the child has a medical emergency or the custodial parent finds he or she cannot pay child support due to a loss of job or illness or some type of hardship on the parent who is receiving the child support.

It is important to understand a child support order will affect the paying and receiving parent’s financial stability as well as the financial stability of the child. Working toward the best interest of the child is where a judge will begin so should the parents.

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