According to the American Bar Association, “the starting point for determining child support usually is the state's guideline or a formula that considers the income of the parents, the number of children, and some other factors. The formulas are based on studies of how much families ordinarily spend for raising children,” the American Bar Association says. “Numbers are plugged into the formula, yielding an amount of support each child should get.”
Most states have the guidelines on their website. Some even have a child support calculator, which lets you punch in your income and other factors, and then calculates what you can expect to pay. Some commercial websites have calculators as well, but these are not as reliable because they might not be current on the states' guidelines.
If your income is either very low (under $13,000, for example), or very high (for example, over $80,000), additional rules usually take effect, depending on the state.
Income can be defined in the very broadest way—to include not only wages, but also assets, such as stocks or a pension, government benefits, or regular, annual gifts from family members—or it can be defined in a narrow way, limited only to earned income.
For the purpose of calculating income for the paying parent (to determine the amount of child support to be paid), the law usually provides for deductions to be taken from the income, and those deductions vary from state to state as well. Federal, state, and local taxes, mandatory retirement contributions, union dues, and health insurance, as well as payments already being made on behalf of other children and spouses from prior relationships are among the common deductions.
Unless you live in one of the few states that uses gross income as a basis for setting child support amounts, your net income (what's left after the allowed deductions) becomes the money from which you pay your child support obligation. Different states use different methods to allocate child support payments between parents. Most use percentages, and the percentage usually increases with each additional child you have.
In the majority of states, parents receiving public assistance can exclude that income from the calculation. For these parents, there might be special guidelines for child support.
On the other end of the income scale, some states place a ceiling on the income used to calculate child support, such as a combined parental income of $80,000. All income above $80,000 might be subject to a different percentage from the first $80,000 of income. Or a cap might apply to the amount of income above the $80,000 for the purposes of calculating child support.
In addition to child support, parents are often required to maintain health insurance for the children and sometimes life insurance to guarantee the child support in the event of a parent's death. In most states, parents are also required to pay for childcare, minus any child-care expense tax credit the other (typically, custodial) parent might receive.
Child Support in Sole Custody Arrangements
You Can Do It!
Many states now make payment of child support easy by allowing you to pay right on their websites!
Federal law requires states to review their child support guidelines and make any necessary revisions every four years, so be sure to check your state's website for the latest information before thinking about your situation.
Let's look at an example of how child support is determined in New York. Unless the parents agree otherwise, the state assumes a child will live primarily with one of his parents, as opposed to both parents sharing physical custody after the divorce. We will use New York State's child support guidelines as an example.
The State of New York's child support guidelines state:
- “The gross income of each parent is determined and the incomes are combined;
- the combined parental income is multiplied by the appropriate child support percentage—17 percent for one child, 25 percent for two children, 29 percent for three children, 31 percent for four children, and not less than 35 percent for five or more children;
- this figure is the basic child support obligation, which is then divided between the parents on a pro-rata basis, according to the amount of their respective incomes;
- additional amounts to be paid for childcare, medical care not covered by health insurance, and educational expenses are determined by the court and added to the basic child support obligation; and,
- the noncustodial parent is ordered to pay his/her share to the custodial parent—sometimes called the 'parent of primary residence.'”
The amount of child support calculated in accordance with the (New York) guidelines is presumed to be the correct amount. “Either parent can offer evidence that this amount is not correct, and the court has the authority to decide whether the guidelines amount is unjust or inappropriate,” the guidelines state. “If the court orders a different amount than the basic support obligation according to the guidelines, the court must set forth its reasons for doing so in writing. Either party can object to the findings of the court.”
Here's an example of how such calculations might work in the state of Anywhere, USA:
Mark's income as a bank manager is $90,000. Nancy's income as a paralegal is $50,000. Their combined income is $140,000. For the purposes of child support, their child is entitled to 20 percent of the combined parental income, up to $70,000 in their state. The child support is to be paid in the ratio of the parents' incomes to their combined income. Because the combined income is double the amount used for the purposes of the base calculation—$140,000—the law in their state allows the judge to decide how to use the extra $70,000 of income. The judge decides to cap the income to be considered for support at $110,000. He then calculates that 20 percent of $110,000 is $22,000—the total amount of child support. Nancy has to pay 36 percent of this amount, or $7,920, and Mark has to pay 64 percent, or $14,080.