Basic child support information:
Child support is owed until the child turns 18 years old. If the child turns 18 and is still a full-time student, then child support continues to be owed until the child graduates from high school. For example, if a child turns 18 years old in January of their senior year in high school and graduates the following June, child support is going to be owed until the child graduates. However, even if a child is a full time student, if they have not graduated from high school by age 19, then child support ends upon their 19th birthday.
Courts do not have jurisdiction (authority) to order a parent to pay for their child’s college education. However, if a parent agrees to pay for part or all of a child’s college education expenses as part of a divorce settlement agreement, then the court will enforce that agreement. Child support is not tax deductible by the payor and not taxable income to the recipient.
There are various elements to a proper child support order. First, there is the base amount of child support to be paid. For example, a father may pay the mother $500 per month in base child support. The base amount of child support is calculated using a computer program. See the following discussion under “Calculating the amount of base child support”. In addition to agreeing on the base amount of child support, parents should agree on who will maintain health insurance coverage for the child or children. The agreement should also address who will pay for child care; the cost of extra-curricular activities; and which party will claim the child as an exemption on future income tax returns.
Calculating the amount of base child support:
If you were to look at the child support laws for the State of California, you would see that the laws include a specific mathematical formula for calculating the base amount of child support that should be paid. The base child support number that the mathematical formula produces is called the “guideline” number. The child support formula is so complicated that you need a computer program to run the calculation. There are different child support computer software programs available for purchase (i.e., DissoMaster; XSpouse; SupportTax; CalSupportPRO; etc.). They all produce about the same numbers. The variations in the numbers from program to program are typically very small.
We have run a sample child support computer calculation for you, using a computer software program called “DissoMaster”. The DissoMaster program is widely used by courts in the State of California. You can purchase this program and similar programs on-line. For example, the DissoMaster program can be purchased through iTunes. However, you may find that the iTunes version of DissoMaster can only be used on your iPad. If you want to purchase the DissoMaster program on iTunes, click the following link. [LINK] You do not have to purchase the DissoMaster program or any program. There are ways to run the child support calculation for free. One option is to go to the court where you filed your divorce petition. Almost all courts have computer terminals available to members of the public with a guideline child support program included. You can run your own support calculation for free at the court and then print a copy of the calculation. Most courts will have free assistance, such as a Family Law Facilitator, to help you run a support calculation. Another option is to go on-line to www.childsup.ca.gov/resources/calculatechildsupport.aspx. or just Google “State of California child support calculator”. This is a site maintained by the State of California. It includes a child support calculator that you can use for free. It also includes detailed instructions on how to run the program.
Click the “Court Forms” button on the homepage to go to our Court Forms Database where your will find our sample DissoMaster child support guideline calculation printout. The document is entitled, “DissoMaster Support Calculation”. Print the two page sample calculation. It will be very helpful to have this two page printout in front of you as we go through our discussion about child support.
Our sample child support guideline calculation was done using the DissoMaster software because that is the program most commonly used. If you run the calculation using different software, your printout will look somewhat different, but most of the child support programs that you can purchase have similar formats. However, if you use the State of California child support calculator, the printout will look very different. How the printout looks is not important. What is important is that all the child support calculation programs produce very similar child support numbers. Of course, you only want to run child support programs that are designed for the State of California. Other states have very different rules when it comes to child support.
For DissoMaster, when you run the computer program to do the child support calculation, you will note that there are lots of lines for entering data. You enter data for father or husband in the “Father” column. You enter data for mother or wife in the “Mother” column. You then push the “enter” key on your keyboard and the program calculates the guideline amount of child support.
Not all data lines will apply to your case. Each entry will impact the final child support number. Although all data entries impact the calculation, there are a few entries that have the largest overall impact. The amount of income each person earns is certainly one of the most important factors in determining how much support is owed. The next most important factor is the custodial time share percentage. A father that has physical custody of his children 40% of the time will pay less child support than a father that has physical custody of the children only 5% of the time. The reason for this is simple. If a father has physical custody of the children 40% of the time, he should be buying their food 40% of the time, providing housing 40% of the time; buying 40% of their clothing; etc. He should pay less support than a father that has the children only 5% of the time.
Again, all of the computer entries are important, but some of the other more important data entries include how much each party pays for health insurance; how much each party contributes to their 401(k) account; do they have other children from other marriages or relationships living with them; and what is their income tax filing status.
Some of the entries seem counter-intuitive. For example, if the father has a huge mortgage payment, you would think he would get a break and pay less child support. However, the fact is that the big mortgage payment will cause him to pay an even higher amount of child support. The support program sees the interest portion of the mortgage payment as a tax deduction and concludes that the father has more after-tax income and can therefore afford to pay a higher amount of child support.
The same counter-intuitive result happens in regard to 401(k) contributions. If a father is having a lot of money taken out of his paycheck and put into his 401(k) account, he may think he will owe less child support because he has less net income. However, the 401(k) contribution will cause him to owe even more child support than he would owe if he did not make the 401(k) contribution. As far as the computer program is concerned, the 401(k) contribution means the father pays less income tax and he can therefore afford to pay more child support. As a side note, some, 401(k) plans are for Roth 401(k) accounts for which the employee does not get a tax deduction. Contributions to a Roth 401(k) account will not impact the child support number.
Take a look at the sample DissoMaster child support calculation printout that we have provided in our Court Forms Database. We have used a simple calculation. We are assuming the parties have two children, that the children reside primarily with Mother, and spend 30% of their time in Father’s physical custody. We are assuming Father earns $4,333 per month and pays $300 per month for health insurance. We are assuming Mother earns $1,500 per month. The “guideline” child support numbers appear in the center of the page. We have highlighted the child support and spousal support numbers. “CS Payor Father” tells you that Father is the parent paying the child support. “Basic CS” in the amount of $863 is the base “guideline” child support amount per month that Father would owe Mother.
If you have more than one child, the guideline child support numbers are allocated between the children, with the youngest child receiving more child support than the oldest child. If you look at our sample DissoMaster printout, you will see that the child support is allocated $305 to “Child 1” (which is the oldest child) and $558 to “Child 2” (which is the youngest child). Again, we have highlighted these numbers. Those two numbers add up to the $863 total child support. You want the child support allocated in this fashion, not split equally between the children.
The reason the support program allocates more support for younger children has to do with child support ending when the oldest child turns 18 years old and “drops off the dole”. If a couple has only one child, a fair amount of support may be $500 per month for that one child. The child support number can be fairly high because the parent is paying support for only one child. If that same couple has 5 kids, $500 per month per child may be way more than the supporting parent can afford to pay. The amount owed per child decreases as the number of children increases. It costs less per child to raise children when you have a group of children.
Rather than have a support order that equally allocates the total amount of child support between each child, the program figures out how much should be paid for the total number of children and then allocates the amount so that as each child turns 18 and drops off, the amount of child support owed for the remaining children is still fair. This approach eliminates the need for the custodial parent to go back to court for a new child support order each time an older child turns 18 years old.
Issues with income, overtime, and bonuses:
The salary/wages number that goes into the child support calculation program is the gross amount (i.e., the amount before taxes are taken out) and not the net pay check amount. If you and your spouse get paid a base monthly salary, say $4,000 per month, figuring out each party’s gross income for the support calculation is simple. If your spouse gets paid an hourly wage and works full time, there is also no real mystery as to the amount of their base salary or wages. Just take their hourly wage and multiply it by 40 hours per week, then multiply by 52 weeks in a year, and then divide by 12 months.
If your spouse also earns overtime pay or bonus income, you still use their base salary for the support calculation, but you then also use an overtime chart. If you look at the second page of our sample child support calculation, you will see a sample overtime chart. The chart is called, “Father Monthly Overtime Wages Report”. This can be used to calculate how much extra child support should be paid when the father receives additional overtime income. It can also be used when father receives extra income from commissions. As an example, if father earns $500 of overtime income in a particular month, the chart indicates he should pay mother 23.73% of the gross amount of that extra income or $119 as additional child support. 23.73% of $500 is the $119. To get these numbers, look down the column entitled, “Father’s Gross Overtime” until you see the $500 figure. Then, go across to the next column entitled, “Basic CS%” and you will see the 23.73%. We have highlighted these numbers.
On the Overtime Wages Report, “CS%” stands for the percentage of the gross amount of overtime pay that should be paid as additional child support. The sample overtime chart goes up to $2,000. However, the “Father Monthly Overtime Wages Report” can be expanded to go up to any amount of overtime income you want. The incremental increases can also be modified. So, instead of the income going up by $100 increments, the chart can be adjusted to go up by $500 increments or $1,000 increments or whatever amount you want. The DissoMaster program also includes a “Mother Monthly Overtime Wages Report” for cases in which the mother earns overtime pay or commissions. There is even a two-way overtime chart that can be used when both parties earn overtime pay.
Instead of monthly overtime, some people tend to get one or more large bonus payments per year. For these situations, the DissoMaster program also has a “Father Annual Bonus Wages Report”, and a “Mother Annual Bonus Wages Report”. The concept is the same as the overtime chart. You have a base child support number calculated using both parties’ base monthly salary numbers. If one or both parties receive bonus income, then you look up the percentage of additional child support they should pay on that extra income. So, no matter how much someone earns, they pay (or receive) a fair amount of support.
These overtime and bonus charts make it possible to have a fair child support order even when one or both parties have a job where it is difficult or impossible to predict how much they will actually earn. So long as you can start with a base monthly salary number, and both parties feel comfortable they will earn at least that much per month, then you can use the overtime charts or bonus charts to capture a fair amount of child support on any extra income over the base salary.
You can attach copies of any overtime or bonus chart(s) to your settlement agreement or divorce judgment so the charts can be referred to by either party in the future as overtime income and bonus income is received.
The sample overtime chart we have supplied applies to a specific case (i.e., a case where the father has 30% custody, earns $4,333 per month, pays $300 per month for health insurance, etc. Each time you change a number for the child support calculation, it also changes the numbers on the overtime chart. What this means is, you can’t use the sample overtime chart we have provided as a means to calculate the additional support that you or your spouse should pay based on overtime income. The sample overtime chart is part of the child support calculation for a particular case.
The software child support calculator you use may not include overtime charts or bonus charts. If the support calculator you are using does not include overtime or bonus charts, you can still come up with a formula that takes into account overtime pay and bonus pay. This is how you do it. Run your support calculation using each party’s base monthly salary. Then, run the support calculation again, assuming that father has an extra $1,000 per month of pay. Look at how much the child support increased. Then, calculate the percentage. For example, assume Father’s base pay is $5,000 per month. You ran the support calculation and the base child support number is $919 per month for one child. Now, add an extra $1,000 to Father’s base salary. Run the same calculation, but with father’s income at $6,000 per month. The new child support number is $1,063. The amount child support increased by $144 due to the extra $1,000 of income. If you divide $1,000 by $144, you get 14.4%. You could make an agreement that father will pay mother $919 per month in base child support, and if he gets overtime income or bonus income, he will pay mother additional child support equal to 14.4% of the gross amount of that extra income. Your settlement agreement could state that the 14.4% will apply no matter what the amount of the bonus income or overtime pay turns out to be. This approach essentially accomplishes the same goal as the complicated bonus charts, but it is much simpler to use and many people prefer this approach, even when they have access to support calculation programs that include overtime and bonus charts. Frankly, overtime charts and bonus charts are oftentimes confusing and cumbersome to use, particularly the two-way charts. It is oftentimes much easier to just use a flat percentage that will apply to whatever amount of earnings a parent receives that exceeds the amount of their base salary that was used to calculate the base child support amount.
As we previously mentioned, you can use one of the computer terminals at the court for free to run your child support calculation. You can go on-line and use the State of California child support calculator for free. You can also purchase software such as DissoMaster to run your child support calculation. Another option you may want to consider is contacting a family law attorney in your area and pay that attorney to run the child support calculation for you. It should not take much time for an attorney to run the support calculation for you if you are properly prepared. You are not hiring the local attorney to do your divorce. You are paying the attorney a half hour or an hour of his or her time to just run the support calculation for you.
If you decide to hire a local attorney to run the support calculation for you, be prepared when you go to meet with the attorney. If you are not prepared, you will waste your time and money. In order to be properly prepared, you should bring with you copies of your last two federal income tax returns, copies of last year’s W-2 forms for both you and your spouse, and copies of the most recent pay stubs for both you and your spouse. If you and/or your spouse are self-employed, bring a current profit & loss statement for your business. If you own a home, bring a current mortgage statement. Also, know how much both you and your spouse will each be paying for health insurance after the divorce is concluded. Finally, be prepared to tell the attorney what percentage of time the children will be in your physical custody and what percentage of time the children will be in your spouse’s physical custody after the divorce. After the attorney runs the support calculation, have the attorney give you a printout of the calculation. You will need the printout to attach to your divorce judgment. You may be able to find a local attorney that will offer an initial free divorce consultation and the attorney may be willing to run the support calculation as part of the free consultation.
What do you do when there is no clear record about how much your spouse earns. Perhaps he or she works “under the table” or is self-employed and is not reporting all of their income or is writing off all kinds of personal expenses as business expenses. You and your spouse have to be honest about the true amount of each party’s income. If one person is not going to be honest, then you are probably not going to have an uncontested divorce and will be looking at a contested divorce, at least with respect to support issues.
If one or both parties are underreporting the amount of their income, there is an incentive for everyone to be reasonable when it comes to making an agreement about child support. If you don’t reach an agreement and the matter ends up in litigation and the court finds out that one or both parties have been under reporting their income on their tax returns, the judge may contact the IRS and an audit may be headed your way.
State agency to help you with child support:
Each county has an agency, known as the Department of Child Support Services or “DCSS”. If you go to DCSS and open a file, they will file the necessary papers with the court to obtain a fair child support order. DCSS will also take the necessary steps to collect or otherwise enforce the child support order. They do not charge you for their services. It has nothing to do with the amount of your income. You can earn $100,000 per month and be a multi-millionaire. DCSS will still provide child support services to you free of charge. They do not represent you. They are not your attorney. They are an independent agency. They will file the necessary papers with the court to obtain or modify a child support order.They will schedule a court hearing on child support. They will send a lawyer to the hearing to present the case to the court so that a fair child support order is issued. But, the lawyer from DCSS is not your attorney. In most cases, when DCSS is involved, neither party has an attorney.
If you are processing your divorce as an uncontested divorce, where you and your spouse are cooperating with each other, you are probably not going to be opening a file with DCSS. However, if you complete your uncontested divorce and have problems with child support at some point in the future, then DCSS can be a good option for enforcing or modifying child support, at no cost to you.
Child support add-ons:
We have been discussing the “base” amount of child support. In addition to the base amount, you have “add-ons”, which are extra amounts of support that are paid on top of the base amount. You have mandatory “add-ons” and discretionary “add-ons”. You have two mandatory add-ons consisting of child care costs and health care costs. You have two discretionary add-ons consisting of educational costs and the cost of extra-curricular activities.
Child care costs (mandatory add-on):
Child support includes child care costs that are incurred so a spouse can be employed or so a spouse can obtain an education or training to become employed. The child care costs are stacked on top of the base child support amount.
The child care costs are allocated between the parties. Typically, the child care costs are divided equally. Mom pays half and Dad pays half. However, if requested by one party, the court can apportion the child care costs based on the amount of each party’s net disposable income. If one parent earns substantially more than the other parent, then a court may assign a larger portion of the child care costs to the higher earner. Some of the support calculation programs will do this calculation for you if you want to allocate child care costs based on each party’s net disposable income. However, the most common practice is to split the child care costs equally. You can look at the current amount that it is costing for child care, divide that by 2, and add the amount to the base child support number. However, since the cost of child care changes over time, a better approach is to have your child support agreement simply state that each parent will pay their one half share of the child care costs as the costs are incurred.
Health care costs (mandatory add-on):
Child support also includes the cost of health care. The first issue is: Which parent will provide health insurance coverage for the children? “Health insurance” may be just medical insurance or it may also include dental and/or vision insurance. Hopefully, at least one parent will have health insurance available for the children through that parent’s employment at no cost or at a very reasonable cost. The child support agreement should state which parent is going to provide health insurance coverage for the children. If neither parent has health insurance through their employment, then health insurance for the children should be obtained and the cost of that insurance can be paid equally by both parents.
Even if you have health insurance, there are going to be deductibles, co-pays, and other costs that are not covered by insurance. The typical child support agreement is going to state that any and all out-of-pocket health care costs incurred on behalf of the children will be paid 50% by each parent. Again, the court can allocate the out-of-pocket health care costs based on each party’s net disposable income, but the most common agreement is to equally share these costs.
Educational expenses (discretionary add-on):
Sometimes educational costs may be incurred on behalf of a child. For example, a child may need a tutor. Educational expenses can include lots of items. Even if your child attends public school, many schools require various fees to be paid at the beginning of the year, particularly high schools. There may be field trip fees, year book fees, fees to attend or participate in school sporting events, etc. When some children are juniors or seniors in high school, they take expensive courses to prepare them to take college entrance exams. College application fees are typically paid when children are seniors in high school. Although educational expenses are a discretionary add-on, most parents are willing to pay 50% of these fees. If one parent is unwilling to pay, most courts will order the parents to share reasonable educational costs. You want your child support agreement to be as specific as possible describing exactly what educational expenses are going to be shared. Vague agreements invite future arguments. Specific agreements help avoid future arguments. Our Marital Settlement Agreement template, which is discussed in another section of the website, includes provisions that cover these types of issues. [See, “Judgment”, and then the sub-topic, “Agreement Template”].
Private school fees are a different animal. If both parents are in agreement that the children should attend private school and both parents are willing to share those costs, then there is no problem. Include the understanding to share private school tuition as a provision in your settlement agreement or judgment. However, if one parent objects to paying private school tuition, it is oftentimes very difficult to get a court to order the sharing of private school tuition. Although the parents may have been able to afford private school for the children when the parents were living together, private school tuition sometimes becomes unaffordable after the parents split up.
Extra-curricular activities (discretionary add-on):
The cost of extra-curricular activities or other special needs of the children are a discretionary add-on, but most parents are willing to share in these costs. Examples are fees associated with the children participating in activities such as soccer, little league, dance lessons, piano lessons, etc.
Problems can arise when one parent goes overboard, signing up the children for multiple extracurricular activities at a time. There are two issues: 1) cost; and 2) interference with the other parent’s custodial time. For example, assume the custody agreement says that Dad gets custody of the children every Thursday evening, and Mom then signs the children up for karate lessons on Thursday evenings. Another example, Mom gets visitation with the children on the weekends and Dad signs the children up for swim team which involves swim meets every weekend that last 4 to 5 hours. Mom may not want to spend her limited time with the children sitting around the pool while the children do swim team events.
It is a good idea for the child support order to contain detailed provisions about extra-curricular activities so as to minimize future disputes. An agreement may provide that the parents will equally share the cost of the children’s extra-curricular activities for any activities that the children have participated in the past, but in regard to any “new” activity, the obligation to share in the cost is conditioned on both parents providing their written consent, with said consent not to be unreasonably withheld. You may want to include a provision that the children will not be signed up for an extra-curricular activity if that activity will take place during the other parent’s custodial time, unless the other parent gives their written consent. Another approach is to simply include in your settlement agreement a list of the extra-curricular activities that both parents agree the children will participate in and for which they will share the costs.
Tax laws constantly change. The recently enacted federal tax laws reduce personal and dependent exemption deductions to zero. However, various tax provisions still make reference to persons for whom dependent exemption deductions are allowed (such as the child and dependent care tax credit; educational tax credits; etc.). Exemptions are still valuable, but not as valuable as they used to be. Your settlement agreement should specify which parent is going to claim the children as exemptions on future state and federal income tax returns. Look at how you ran the guideline child support calculation. Which parent was assigned the children as federal exemptions for purposes of your child support calculation? Your settlement agreement should indicate that the exemptions will be allocated in the same way they were allocated for purposes of the child support calculation. If the children were assigned as exemptions to Mom for purposes of the child guideline support calculation, then the settlement agreement should say that Mom is entitled to claim the children as exemptions on her future income tax returns until further order of the court.
Some support calculation software programs, including DissoMaster, will tell you the best way to allocate the children as exemptions in order to minimize the amount of income tax the family unit pays to the government. If you look at our sample DissoMaster child support printout that we provided, in the middle column, it provides two different child support amounts. The first set of numbers (i.e., $305 for Child 1 and $558 for Child 2, for a total of $863 in child support, which we have highlighted) assumes that mother will be claiming both children as federal exemptions. Below those numbers are the “Proposed, tactic 9” numbers. The child support numbers using tactic 9 are $410 for Child 1 and $614 for Child 2, for a total of $1,024 in child support. [The total on the form is actually $1,025 because the computer is rounding up certain calculations.] Why are the tactic 9 child support numbers higher? They are higher because, under tactic 9, the computer program has looked at all the numbers and determined that less income tax will be paid by the family if, instead of Mother claiming both children as exemptions, she gives (“releases”) both exemptions to Father. By moving the exemptions to Father, the family pays $236 less in income tax ($120 less paid by Father and $116 less paid by Mother). Father pays more child support, but the extra support is mostly offset by the tax benefits he will derive by claiming both children as exemptions.
The government lets you and your spouse allocate the children as exemptions any way you want. You may as well allocate them to pay the least amount of tax and maximize the family’s net income. You can figure the best way to allocate the exemptions by using tactic 9 on the DissoMaster program. If you are using a different support calculation program that does not have something similar to tactic 9, you can move the exemptions around, run multiple support calculations, and then look at both parties’ net spendable income as you move the exemptions. This approach will allow you to figure out how best to allocate the exemptions.
Life insurance provision:
Do you want your child support agreement to contain provisions for life insurance? If Dad is paying Mom substantial amounts of child support and he dies in a car accident, Mom is going to need money to support the children.This issue can be addressed by including a life insurance provision in the settlement agreement. See the “Life Insurance” link in the previous “Getting Educated” section of this website for a detailed discussion about life insurance as an element of child support. Again, our Marital Settlement Agreement template (discussed in another section of the website) includes optional life insurance provisions. [See, “Judgment” and then the sub-topic, “Agreement Template”.
College education provision:
As previously mentioned, courts do not have jurisdiction to order parents to pay for the college education of adult children. However, if the settlement agreement states that the parents will share the cost of the children’s college education, then the courts will enforce the terms of that agreement. There is a lot to consider when it comes to college education provisions. Be careful about including a college education provision in your settlement agreement. College can be extremely expensive. It can be difficult or impossible to predict your future ability to contribute towards your children’s college education when the children won’t start college for many years.
If you intend to include a college education provision as part of your settlement agreement, you need to precisely define exactly which expenses are going to be shared. Expenses to be shared may include tuition, books, dormitory fees, meal plan fees, admission application fees, etc. Many colleges have an entire assortment of fees that go by various names. What if your child elects to live off campus or what if the college does not have dormitories? Are you and your spouse going to share the cost of your child’s apartment, utilities, groceries, and a monthly allowance? Are you going to pay for college only if your child attends a public college or public university or are you willing to also pay for attendance at a much more expensive private college? Are you willing to pay for college if your child elects to attend college out of state and has to pay non-resident tuition rates? Are you going to pay for just an undergraduate degree or also a graduate degree? Are you going to put an age limit on your obligation (i.e., does your child have to complete college by age 22 or will you pay the college expenses even if your child does not decide to go to college until he or she is 40 years old)? If you and your spouse established college account for the children during the marriage, who will manage those funds until the children start college? After they start college, what kind of accounting will be provided to the other parent? What if the children elect not to go to college, who gets the funds that were set aside to pay for the children’s college education? You have to give a lot of thought to writing college education provisions.
We have included sample college education provisions in our Marital Settlement Agreement template. The Marital Settlement Agreement template is discussed in another section of this website. [See “Judgment” and then sub-topic, “Agreement Template”.]
Can’t waive child support:
You can’t waive child support rights. As an adult, you can waive your rights to receive spousal support because those rights belong to you. However, the right to receive child support belongs to the child and can’t be waived by a parent because the court wants to ensure that children are properly supported. Your settlement agreement does not have to include child support at the “guideline” amount. You can agree that the child support will be more than the guideline number. You can agree that the child support will be less than the guideline number. You can even agree that the child support will be zero, so long as the agreement makes it clear that the court reserves jurisdiction to order the guideline amount of child support at anytime in the future.
In another section of this website, we go over the various Judicial Council forms and the Marital Settlement Agreement template that can be used to set forth your child support agreement. [See, “Judgment” and the sub-topics “Agreement Template” and “Forms Approach”].