How is the amount of child support calculated?

Each state has developed guidelines that help establish the amount of child support that must be paid. The guidelines vary significantly from state to state, but they are all generally based on the parent's incomes and expenses and the needs of the children. In some states, the guidelines allow judges greater discretion in determining the amount of child support that must be paid, but in other states any variance from the guidelines must be carefully justified or it can be readily overturned on appeal. In Florida, a judge must justify any deviation from the guidelines that is more that plus or minus 5% of the guidelines support level. Some factors in determining whether the guidelines should be adjusted up or down are as follows:

1. Extraordinary medical, psychological, educational, or dental expenses.

2. Independent income of the child, not to include moneys received by a child from supplemental security income.

3. The payment of support for a parent which regularly has been paid and for which there is a demonstrated need.

4. Seasonal variations in one or both parents' incomes or expenses.

5. The age of the child, taking into account the greater needs of older children.

6. Special needs, such as costs that may be associated with the disability of a child, that have traditionally been met within the family budget even though the fulfilling of those needs will cause the support to exceed the proposed guidelines.

7. Total available assets of the obligee, obligor, and the child.

8. The impact of the Internal Revenue Service dependency exemption and waiver of that exemption. The court may order the primary residential parent to execute a waiver of the Internal Revenue Service dependency exemption if the noncustodial parent is current in support payments.

9. When application of the child support guidelines requires a person to pay another person more than 55 percent of his or her gross income for a child support obligation for current support resulting from a single support order.

10. The particular shared parental arrangement, such as where the child spends a significant amount of time, but less than 40 percent of the overnights, with the noncustodial parent, thereby reducing the financial expenditures incurred by the primary residential parent; or the refusal of the noncustodial parent to become involved in the activities of the child.

11. Any other adjustment which is needed to achieve an equitable result which may include, but not be limited to, a reasonable and necessary existing expense or debt. Such expense or debt may include, but is not limited to, a reasonable and necessary expense or debt which the parties jointly incurred during the marriage.

Often, the guidelines are set out in a chart-type format that calculates the child support amount as a percentage of the paying parent's income that increases as the number of children being supported rises. In Florida, the guidelines are found in Chapter 61 of the Florida Statutes. It is important to remember, however, that the guidelines are just that-guidelines-and they are not fixed amounts that must be applied under any and all circumstances. Judges are free to deviate from the guidelines when there are good reasons to do so (see above). If, for instance, one party or a child has higher than average expenses, the amount can vary. Or if the court determines that the paying parent is voluntarily earning less than he or she could for the purpose of minimizing the child support obligation, the judge can calculate the amount of child support based on what the payer is capable of earning.

Despite the variations from state to state, there are some general factors that are almost universally considered by judges issuing child support orders, including:

  • The child's standard of living before the parents' separation or divorce;
  • The paying parent's ability to pay;
  • The custodial parent's needs and income; and
  • The needs of the child or children, including educational costs, daycare expenses, and medical expenses, such as for health insurance or special health care needs.

Judges will often review a financial statement completed by each parent that lists all sources and amounts of income and expense before issuing an order. That is why it is so important to fill out the Financial Affidavit as it forms the basis for many of the decisions that the judge makes in determining the outcome of the case. If any of the listed items changes significantly, either parent may go back to court and ask for an increase or decrease in the amount of child support ordered.