[Guide] How is Child Support Calculated in a Divorce?

By:
Michael Tierney
Updated
September 18, 2022

The division of assets is one of the most important details in any divorce negotiation. While the end of a marriage is often stressful and traumatic, understanding how a divorce will affect your life after it's finalize is critical. The division of assets can encompass several resources shared between you and your spouse. While financial and real assets are among the most common subjects in divorce negotiations, other details are commonly broached.

Ordinarily, divorce negotiations focus on the division of assets between the two spouses, but some marriages involve an additional layer of negotiation that is just as crucial.

Solution This layer of negotiation involves those surrounding any children you and your spouse might have. While not every marriage yields children, those that do are forced to account for how each parent will be present in their lives in the future.

Child support is one of the biggest points of contention in any divorce proceeding since it involves one parent paying the other to support the child. When tensions are high and finances are tight, child support can be a significant burden. While child support is a constant in divorce cases where children are involved, it is not well understood by the general public. Specifically, one of the biggest questions about child support is how the payment amount is calculated.

What is Child Support?

If you are not overly familiar with the concept of child support, it is little more than a regular payment for the care of your child. When you have a child, but you and your spouse cannot continue the marriage, it is common for one parent to take primary custody while the other gets visitation rights. The non-custodial parent is expected to contribute to the child's financial needs regardless of the custodial parent.

These payments are expected from any parent who wants to retain their parental rights but has not been awarded custody. While child support payments are common, a lot of detail goes into calculating and assigning responsibility for these payments.

Mother With Child Custody

The support payments paid out by the non-custodial parent are designed to provide the child from the marriage with the financial resources necessary for their youth. Because the child support payments are part of parental oversight from the non-custodial parent, the custodial parent cannot use them for non-parental expenses. The custodial parent must dedicate child support payments to essential expenses necessary to the child's development. The most notable of these expenses include healthcare and education.

Solution Any attempts to use child support payments for anything other than essential expenses for the child are illegal. It can lead to the child support arrangement set during the divorce negotiations being revoked and affecting the custody arrangement. Conversely, failing to pay child support on time can cause legal trouble and lead to garnishment to ensure the payments are met.

Once a plan is established, child support payments are non-negotiable, and the non-custodial parent is 100% responsible for making the payments on time. As for how much the non-custodial parent is expected to pay, that determination involves different calculations.

How Are Child Support Payments Calculated?

Raising a child is a significant investment, and the parents are responsible for providing for their child and their financial needs. When involved in a divorced, neither parent who intends to remain in their child's life is absolved of this responsibility. When one parent is assigned custody of the child, they are responsible for the day-to-day care and costs of raising them. The other parent contributes to this with child support payments consistent with their financial role before the divorce.

Solution Aside from determining which parent is given full custody, it generally falls to the judge to determine how much child support the non-custodial parent is expected to pay.

The complication of this system is that every state has unique regulations and laws to help calculate that amount. Despite each state having specific criteria for the calculations for child support payment, there are a few universal details that states tend to consider when deciding how much the non-custodial will pay.

The most important factor determining child support payments is the parent's income. Some states factor in the income of both parents, whereas others only consider the income of the non-custodial parent. Typically, the lower the income of the custodial parent compared to the non-custodial parent, the more the non-custodial parent pays.

Another important factor in child support calculations is the time each parent spends with the child. In this case, the less time the non-custodial parent spends with their child, the more they tend to pay in support. This enhanced child support is meant to compensate for the lack of direct interaction the non-custodial parent provides their child. This does not always factor into the calculations, and there are other details that most states consider.

Woman Making Calculations

Among them are:

  • Any child support or alimony payments the custodial parent receives from past marriages.
  • Any child support or alimony payments either parent pays for past marriages.
  • Whether either parent is already responsible for any children from past marriages.
  • Which parent is responsible for health insurance costs, and how much they are paying.
  • Which parent is responsible for the daycare costs, and how much they are paying.
  • The ages of the children.
  • Whether either parent has irregular income such as bonuses and other lump-sum payments.
  • Whether either parent has a new partner or spouse assisting with living expenses.

While these factors are common with most child support payment calculations across state borders, the only effective way to determine how much you might pay requires specific knowledge. For example, in Virginia, the child support payments are calculated by considering:

  • The number of children that require financial support.
  • The total income of both parents.

These factors are usually combined with the same general factors mentioned above, and most states follow similar guidelines. However, some states use stricter policies for determining the child support payments expected from the non-custodial parent. While grasping how the payment amounts are calculated is important, other details require consideration.

Can The Child Support Amount Be Altered?

One concern the non-custodial parent might have is finding a way to alter the child support payment to be more forgiving. Sometimes, the amount expected for child support is too high to sustain the parent's current financial situation. In these circumstances, adjusting the support amount is the only way to prevent the payments from bankrupting them. While rare, it is possible to request an alteration to the child support agreement to lower the payment amount.

Solution Getting a child support adjustment approved requires that you prove the adjustment is necessary to prevent the payments from overwhelming you. Specifically, you need to prove that your financial situation has changed since the initial agreement was authorized.

Proving the change occurred is not enough to get the altered support plan approved. You also need to prove that the change in your financial situation was:

  • Unanticipated: The change in your financial situation should not have been something you saw coming or was planned.
  • Permanent: The change in your financial situation cannot be something that will be reversed shortly and will instead be a long-lasting issue.
  • Substantial: The change in your financial situation cannot be minor and must consist of a minimum 10% to 20% change.

If the change in your financial situation does not meet the above criteria, you are unlikely to get a judge to approve an alteration to the child support agreement. While the different states have specific criteria that can alter the above, most situations that constitute a change are fairly universal.

Altering an Agreement

Among them are:

  • Income Reduction: One of the most common causes of an altered child support agreement is an involuntary reduction in your income. Since income is the main factor for determining the child support amount, lowering your income against your will can make the previous agreement unfair. The reduction must result from your current employer altering your pay somehow. Having your income decrease due to voluntarily changing jobs or hours does not qualify.
  • Income Increase: Similar to the above, you can petition to increase your child support if the non-custodial parent gets a raise. When the non-custodial parent receives more income than when the judge drafted the agreement, it gives cause for adjusting the agreement to factor in that raise.
  • Change in the Child's Needs: Another important factor in getting approval for an alteration to the child support arrangement is the child's needs. Every child has different educational, medical, or physical needs that can impact the expenses of raising that child. Unfortunately, these needs are not static and can change as the child grows and develops, allowing those needs to develop with them. If the child's needs change, the cost of tending to those issues can increase. This change can validate a reassessment of the child support agreement and cause a judge to alter the approved amount.
  • Change in the Number of Children: Child support arrangements are supposed to provide financial support for all children involved in the divorce. While this is primarily focused on the children you and your spouse share, the agreement must consider the total number of children in need of support. As odd as it might seem, the child support agreement you share with your spouse must factor in any unrelated children you or your spouse support. If you or your spouse remarry and end up with stepchildren, you can alter the child support agreement to ensure that the support does not become too high or low.

Child support agreements are not as clear-cut as many believe, and many agreements can be altered under the right circumstances. This makes child support one of the most important factors of a divorce, but there is one question you might also want to ask.

How Long Does Child Support Last?

A common misconception is that child support is like spousal support, and when your spouse remarries, you are no longer expected to pay the support.

Solution This is not true; child support has a lifespan separate from spousal support.

Child support aims to ensure that the non-custodial parent continues to fulfill their financial obligations to their child. This means that child support payments must continue until the child is no longer dependent on their parents for finances. Once a child is emancipated from their parents, the need for child support fades since the child is no longer their parent's responsibility in the eyes of the law.

Parent Playing With Their Child

Ordinarily, emancipation occurs once your child becomes a legal adult on their 18th birthday, though they can emancipate themselves before they turn 18. Once your child is legally emancipated, you can petition the courts to absolve you of future child support payments. We want to stress that you must petition for the right to cease payments since stopping outright without permission could lead to legal repercussions.

Learn the Law

We recognize that going through a divorce is highly unpleasant, especially since it can impact the time you get with your children. Unfortunately, child support payments are a harsh reality of the divorce process that you must adhere to if you want to retain your parental rights. Child support payments are more forgiving than most believe since the court considers your financial situation and that of your spouse before confirming a payment rate.

You also have avenues for adjusting the agreement as your financial situation evolves. We realize this is a small comfort in the face of divorce, but you can take matters into your own hands if you have concerns beyond child support.

Child Support and Custody Law

While one of the more complicated civil proceedings, divorce law can be better understood with a little information. While the finer points of divorce law are best left to legal professionals, understanding the details that apply to you is easier than ever. Knowledge is the ultimate weapon in any legal scenario and finding that knowledge is as simple as tapping a keyboard. While divorce is likely the last thing you were hoping to learn about, we hope the information we have provided here has helped you somehow.

Have any additional questions about child support or how it is decided in a divorce? If so, be sure to leave a comment down below. We'll gladly answer any of your potential questions on the topic of child support or anything else divorce-related to the best of our ability! 

Written By:
Michael Tierney
Michael is a legal writer and graduate of WSU. Prior to becoming a legal writer, he had 6 years of experience as a legal assistant and office manager for a family law attorney. He's written about numerous legal subjects from helping spouses who are stuck in toxic situations to the intricacies of custody battles. In his spare time, he enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and building custom keyboards.

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