Calculating child support seems so simple: you just take the amount of the non-custodial parent’s net income, plug it into your state’s guideline formula, and “Voila!” that’s child support!
Yet, as anyone who has ever had to calculate child support knows, what should be a simple mathematical calculation is often more complicated than trying to figure out the exact amount of the national debt.
Here are the basics of what you need to know in order to calculate child support in your case.
Child Support Laws are State Specific:
Child support is set by state law. Every state has a set of “guidelines” by which child support is calculated. Those guidelines set the standard amount of child support in any given state. However, what makes up “guideline” child support varies dramatically from state to state.
Some states base child support solely upon the net income of the non-custodial parent. Others take into consideration both parents’ incomes when calculating support. Some states factor in the amount of time each parent spends with the children. In other states, the amount of time each parent spends with the children makes little, if any, difference. Some states factor day care costs into the child support calculation. Others do not. In short, every state is different.
Step One in calculating child support is figuring out how child support in your state is calculated.
Garbage in/Garbage Out:
Step Two in calculating child support is getting the numbers you need to plug into your state’s guideline child support formula. In order to calculate child support correctly, you need information that is both current and accurate.
The precise information you will need depends (again) upon your state’s laws. In general, though, you are going to need to know your spouse/ex’s current income, as well as your own. You are going to need to know the cost of everyone’s health insurance premiums. You have to know whether and how much child support your spouse/ex currently pays for any other children he has from prior relationships. You also may need other financial information as well.
It is at this point that things start getting complicated.
If your spouse/ex is an honest guy who wants to support his kids exactly as the law requires, and he is willing to voluntarily give you all of the necessary financial information for you to calculate child support accurately: Awesome! However, if your spouse/ex isn’t as thrilled about coming clean with his finances as you would like him to be, getting accurate and up-to-date information can be one of the biggest hurdles you face in performing any child support calculation. (This is even more true after you are divorced. No one is ever excited at the prospect of divulging the details of their current financial situation to their ex. No one.)
Getting current and accurate financial information from a reluctant spouse/ex is even more difficult if your spouse/ex owns his own business, works for himself, or works for cash. If he is in any of those situations, hiding income becomes infinitely easier. That’s not to say that he will hide income, but he will be in a position where, realistically, he probably can.
Using a Child Support Calculator:
Once you have the information you need, you can use an online child support calculator to give you a rough estimate of what child support maybe should be. Why only an estimate? Because, in the legal world, very little is set in stone. As any good lawyer knows, even if you and your ex start with exactly the same information, how you use that information can make a huge difference in the way the child support calculation comes out.
How can the same financial numbers result in different child support calculations? That’s easy. It all depends upon how you define the terms in the calculation.
The Devil is in the Definitions:
Almost every state’s child support calculation involves one or both parent’s “net income.” But, what is “net income?” Is it just gross income minus taxes and social security? What if your spouse/ex over-withholds taxes from each paycheck so he can get a refund the next year? Do mandatory retirement contributions get deducted too? What about union dues?
The definition of “income” gets even thornier for those who own their own business. If the business pays your spouse/ex’s car payment, is that really a business expense that should be deducted from income before child support is calculated? Or is that a personal expense in disguise that your spouse/ex should be paying from his own pocket? And how, in heaven’s name, are you supposed to figure all this out?
Step Three: Breathe!
Even though every state has guidelines for child support, judges have discretion when it comes to enforcing those guidelines. Some states give the judges very little discretion when applying the guidelines; others give judges broad discretion. But, if you have “special circumstances” – for example, if you have a special needs child – a judge usually has the power to deviate from the guidelines and give you more support than the calculation would otherwise allow.
(Be careful though! A judge can also give you less than guideline child support too — although, again, there have to be special circumstances that warrant the downward deviation.)
The Bottom Line:
When calculating child support, you have to understand how child support is calculated in your state, get the information you need, then be reasonable and realistic.
If your spouse/ex is a W2 employee and you have no special circumstances, chances are that your child support will be a simple mathematical calculation. If your spouse won’t give you the information you need to accurately calculate support, or if your spouse is fighting you over the proper amount of support, then you have to look at how much money you are fighting over, how likely it is that you will ever actually get that money and how much it is going to cost you in attorney’s fees to do that. Then you have to weigh the amount of support you are fighting about against the cost of getting that support, and decide whether fighting makes sense in your case, or not.