Child support is the amount of money that a court orders a parent or both parents to pay each month to
help pay for the support of the child and the child’s living expenses. It is technically defined as an
ongoing provision of money needed to cover a child’s medical and living expenses. Each party has a
legal obligation to contribute to the economic maintenance of his or her children.
Child Support Laws In California
Under the state law of California, child support is determined by performing calculations using a set of
established statutory factors and guidelines. This statewide formula (often called “guideline”) is used for
figuring out how much child support should be paid and is defined in California Family Code Section
4055. Whenever the parties cannot agree on child support, the court will decide the child support amount
based on the “guideline calculation”. The state legislature adopted these guidelines in order to try and
make child support calculations easier and more uniform across California.
What Factors Affect Child Support Payments?
The California family courts utilizes a Dissomaster program to calculate child support. The “guideline”
child support formula requires the input of several relevant factors to determine the amount of child
support to be paid. The most influential factors are each party’s gross monthly income and the amount of
time each party cares for the child. But there are almost an endless amount of factors the court can look
at. The guideline calculation depends on all of the following:
- Each parties respective gross income; A child should be supported to the level of financial stature of BOTH parties. Therefore, if one party makes a lot of money but the child lives primarily with the party that does notmake a lot of money, the child should benefit from higher earning party’s standard of living.
- How much money each respective party can earn; Often used if a party is unemployed or underemployed by showing they have the ability and opportunity to work.
- How much other income each party receives;Including but not limited to commissions, bonuses, BAH, BAS, etc.
- How many children these parties have together; Although if parties have children from previous relationships, it can impact their respective tax filing statuses.
- How much time each party spends with their child; The thought process being that the more one party has custody of the child, the less child support they should pay to the other party because they spend more money for the benefit of the child when the child is in their physical care.
- The tax filing status of each party;
- Child support paid for children from other relationships;
- Health insurance deductions;
- Mandatory union dues;
- Deductible interest and property taxes;
- A new spouse’s income; Although this is mandatory, many people overestimate the effect this has on the child support amount. Almost always, it makes no difference. It usually only makes a difference when adding in the new spouse’s income would change the tax bracket for the respective party for tax filing purposes.
- Mandatory retirement contributions;
- Other factors.
The guideline amount is presumed to be correct. This will often lead to the parties arguing over what
factors to input into the Dissomaster program. One might think there is not be much to argue with respect
to the two major factors, gross income and time spent with the child, but this isn’t necessarily true.
Without a court order that has a very specific parenting plan, or if it is an initial child support order prior
to a parenting plan being ordered by the court, parties can argue over the specific amount of time they
care for the child.
What If I’m Self-Employed?
When it comes to gross income, there are far more potential disputes, especially when
dealing with self-employed or unemployed parties. Self-employed persons must disclose all their income and provide a Schedule C, profit and loss
statements, and a balance sheet for their business when faces with a child support motion. Many times
the income reported on a business tax return is not the figure used for child support purposes. The Court
will determine a reasonable figure to use for the self-employed person if the income is variable.
It is important to be aware of California Family Code Section 4012. This code section states that upon a
showing of good cause, the court can order a parent to provide “reasonable security” for the payment of
child support. This typically includes pre-payment of child support for a one year period of time and such
funds are placed in a trust account.
The child support order may also require the parties to share the costs for:
- Child care to allow the party to work or to get training or schooling;
- Children’s reasonable health-care expenses;
- Traveling for visitation from one party to another;
- Children’s educational needs; and
- Other special needs.
Health Insurance, Medical Costs and Daycare
Federal and California laws require that every child support order include an order for “medical support.”
This means that the court will order either or both parents to provide health insurance for the child as long
as it is available at a “reasonable cost.” Health insurance includes vision and dental coverage. The
payments for health insurance are in addition to the base child support amount but the payments are
factored into the guideline calculation. The court will divide up the cost of any future uninsured medical
costs equally between the parents. Nearly always, both parties are equally responsible for all daycare
costs necessary for either party, during their respective custodial time, to work or obtain job training.
If the parties happen to be going through a divorce, the court can order family support as opposed to child
support and spousal support. Family support is a lump sum payment from one party to the other party
for both child and spousal support. In this scenario, there is no set amount for child support and no set
amount for spousal support, they are simply lumped into one amount.
Family support is often used as a tax strategy in divorce cases because child support payments are not
deductible to the payor and they are not income to the recipient, and spousal support payments are
deductible to the payor and they are income to the recipient. The IRS allows for child support and
spousal support to be lumped together for family support. Family support is entirely tax deductible to the
party making the payment and entirely taxable to the recipient party. More often than not, the amount of
family support is more than if child support and spousal support were ordered separately because of the
fact the recipient party will pay tax on the child support portion of the family support order.
The court can only order child support in an amount other than the guideline amount in very limited
situations. One of the most common exceptions is when the parties agree to an amount different from the
child support guideline amount, as long as it meets certain tests. Parties can agree to a “non-guideline”
child support amount that is either higher or lower than the actual guideline amount if the parties:
- Know their child support rights fully;
- Know the guideline child support amount;
- Are not pressured or forced to agree to this child support amount;
- Are not receiving public assistance;
- Have not applied for public assistance;
- Agree to an amount of support that will meet the needs of the child;
- Think that the child support amount is in the best interest of the child; and
- Have the court approve the amount of child support payments
Remember! If just one of the parties receives public assistance, the Department of Child Support
Services must agree to AND sign the agreement between the parents. DCSS must also sign the agreement
if they are involved in the case in any capacity, as parties always have the option to open a case with
the DCSS to seek child support or to enforce a child support order. No matter what the child support
amount agreed to is, only the judge can decide if it is appropriate and if he or she will accept it and sign it
as an order.
Once an initial child support order is made, one or both parties may experience a change in circumstances
warranting a modification of support. A modification of child support can be accomplished by written
agreement of the parties or through noticed motion to the court. For more information on child support
modifications, see the post-judgment modification page (link).
Failure to Pay Child Support
Failure to pay court-ordered child support is unfortunately a common issue. There are multiples methods
to enforce a child support order such as through a wage garnishment (link) or an action for arrears. It is
important to note that if a parent is not paying child support, the other parent is not permitted to withhold
visitation with the children for ransom.
Under California Family Code Section 3910, the obligation to pay child support terminates when the
child reaches the age of majority. In California, a child reaches the age of majority when they turn 18
years old, or when they turn 19 years old if they are still living with one or both parties and are still
attending high school full-time. There is one important exception to this rule though. Under California
Family Code Section 3910, if a child is an adult but is “incapacitated from earning a living,” which
means that he or she cannot support themselves financially without the help of the parties, the family
court has the authority to order the parties to provide for the support of that child. Child support will also
automatically terminate if the child marries, joins the military, is emancipated, or dies.