Child Support 101

child support 101
Karen Sparks

By Karen Sparks | Aug 26th, 2020

Whether the family law statutes in your jurisdiction state it explicitly or it is inferred from other mandates, the foundational principle for the financial protection of children in divorce is the “best interests of the child”.

There is no hard and fast definition of this phrase because it is not possible to craft one. The blueprint for every family is unique and so are the concerns, requirements, and the emotional, physical and psychological development of the children of every family.

In an attempt to establish a basic set of regulations, most jurisdictions have established child support guideline calculations that, in minimum, are designed to meet the basic needs of minor children. The difficulty with child support is that it is constantly changing as children mature and grow to keep up with their academic, emotional, medical, mental, and physical development. The earning capacity of parents and the existence of two households instead of one presents another layer of challenge.

So, let’s consider some of the ways to get prepared for this discussion.

Understanding what child support is NOT

The child support guideline calculations are not designed to maintain the status quo that existed prior to divorce. Educational, extracurricular and discretionary spending patterns must be re-evaluated during the divorce process.

A corollary to child support is the visitation schedule and agreement for the custodial parent (the parent the minor child(ren) lives with most of the time) and the noncustodial parent representing the time the children spend with each parent. If there are non-payment or inconsistent payment issues by the parent paying child support, visitation rights cannot be withheld as the statutes in most jurisdictions support the minor children’s access to both parents.

An additional note regarding visitation schedules is that some jurisdictions equate the child support guideline numbers to the percentage of time the minor children are spending with each parent. Thus, you will want to research this issue in conjunction with consulting with a family law professional, such as attorneys and Certified Divorce Financial Analysts®, in order to determine the appropriate statutory requirements.

Most statutes impose an obligation on BOTH parents to provide the necessary support for the minor children, not just the higher wage-earning parent.

Child support (unless there are extenuating circumstances) does not continue past the age of 18. Thus, costs for education beyond high school becomes a moral obligation of both parents and not a requirement that is legally enforceable.

The parent paying child support is not entitled to an accounting for how the funds are applied.

From Laurie Itkin: How To Estimate Monthly Child Support

If you want a rough idea of what you could expect to pay or receive in child support after a divorce is final,  a certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) may be able to help you determine an estimate based on pay stubs, tax returns, and other information. He or she can run scenarios based on different assumptions and give you a range of what you could expect.

With Family Law Software, a CDFA® can calculate child support estimates for more than 20 states and scheduling a few hours with an advisor will give you the opportunity to gather information and run some calculations. What if you have 50% custody of your children? What if you have more than 50% custody? What if you land a higher-paying job? It is interesting to test how certain assumptions affect the monthly amount for support. You cannot depend on these estimates, of course, as the final determination will be made during negotiations between you and your spouse (either through litigation or alternative dispute resolution such as mediation) or by a judge.

Useful Documentation When Calculating Child Support:

Child Support Starting Points – Know What Your Expenses Are

  1. Take some time at the onset to create a complete line-item budget of ALL of the expenses, experiences, obligations, requirements etc. that are currently being paid out to support the children of the family. It is important to actually put this number together so that you know where you are financially.
  2. In the process of the divorce negotiations, it will be important to identify all of the income sources available through salary, bonuses, commissions, business income and the like. You can’t begin to talk about what should be paid until you know what is contained in the bucket of financial resources.
  3. Be aware that most states consider it the obligation of BOTH parents to contribute to the financial needs and well being of the children of the marriage.
  4. In most jurisdictions, child support costs can be subject to modification based upon the rise, fall or supplements that affect the finances of the parties over time.

Establishing A Protocol

The topics of who, when, why and how of child support costs is inherently challenging and depending on the age of the children, you can count on these discussions continuing and evolving over time. Part of the difficulty is not having a clear mindset on how to realistically prioritize these expenditures.

Think about developing a process for managing the stress of discussions by dividing your proposed expenses/support costs into three buckets: needs, wants, and costs medically or psychologically necessary for the child’s normal function and human interaction.

Note To Parents: Be Organized

Organization, communication between parents, schedules, expense tracking and reimbursements, a portal for older children to upload messages, etc. requires a streamlined, dependable approach. Consider products such as Our Family Wizard which provide a robust platform in one place to house and maintain key information including expenses. They have also updated their software with a product called ToneMeter™ which acts as a reminder to parents to monitor the effect of their communications.

Below is a list of the more common topic areas and suggestions for strategy considerations.

Health Insurance

Either one or both parents are required to contribute to these costs. A protocol between parents should be developed to address the issue of expenses for uninsured medical costs and procedures.

The amount for these services can be difficult to predict based upon the applied therapies required, the mental, physical or psychological development of the child, the frequency of treatment, the number of children in the family requiring these services, and any changes in health plan coverages for the parties etc.

In the case of a special needs child, it will be necessary to work with an attorney, mediator or other trained family law professional and/or medical professional to work out how the care, costs of care, equipment, medications, transportation to and from school and/or medical services and the like are going to apportioned between the parents. This can be an emotionally charged discussion and therefore it is prudent to engage the appropriate professionals to help work through these requirements.

Income fluctuation and intentional underemployment

Determine whether the statutes in your jurisdiction allow for modifications of existing child support orders. Keep in mind that if you are aware that a modification needs to occur with respect to an existing child support order that you should take action on moving forward on the modification at your earliest convenience.

Travel Expenses

There may be statutory guidance in your jurisdiction for reimbursement of costs for the custodial and the non-custodial parent of transporting the minor children in compliance with the visitation schedule.

Private school

In order to choose the right bucket for this expense, look at programs offered, ability to continue paying expenses at private school, the viability of public school options, change in school districts, social implications, level of academic support required, grade in school at time of divorce in addition to any other unique considerations.

If you choose private school, legal mandates may require proof of necessity. Evidence of benefit to the child, need for ongoing services and the like may need to be compiled.

Classes, Lessons, Athletics

Consider the benefit derived from these activities, are the children currently overscheduled, are these activities medically necessary, is there an unusual aptitude that needs to continue to be supported, is there going to be cooperation in paying costs, and getting the children to and from the activities, can other activities be substituted in place of existing ones that provide a benefit and are more cost-effective, do these activities affect custodial time for the other parent etc.

Summer Camp

Consider the length of time, cost, travel/equipment expenses, the prior pattern of summer activities, academic courses necessary for performance/advancement.

Post-Secondary College/Vocational Education

These payments are mostly considered a moral obligation of the parties of children who are over the age 18. Major issues concern the availability of financial aid packages, student loan requirements, intended course and duration of academic pursuits, potential college tours, expenses for classes and exams required for the admission process, maintenance and expenses while at college, costs for additional activities such as sorority or fraternity, sports and musical equipment and/or gap year expenses.

Costs Connected With Spiritual/Religious Rites Of Passage

If there is an agreement to raise the minor children in a particular faith, attention must be given to the requirements, costs, schedules, study, and fees for special events and the potential celebrations that are connected to these events to budget for the appropriate level of expenses.

Leave Room For Adjustments

Even the best agreements for child support could become subject to speed bumps. These interruptions are often affected by one party or the other not honoring agreements, adjustments to child custody time percentages, illness/disability of either parent, loss/change of employment, remarriage of either parent in addition to any other unique life circumstances.

The key is to stay observant to changes in the financial landscape so that you can seek the advice of the required professionals for the appropriate action/response and stay out in front of potentially negative consequences.

Nonpayment of child support

Investigate whether your jurisdiction or county has a child support services program to enforce and/or litigate the payment of current and/or past child support payments against the payor parent.

There are just a few of the considerations that occur in the negotiations regarding child support. Even though this can be a challenging discussion, remember to keep your children first and foremost in your analysis. The goal is to provide the best post-divorce financial support platform that is possible within the income and other expense parameters of the parents.

Karen Sparks

Karen Sparks

Karen D. Sparks, CDFA®, J.D. is the principal and owner of Divorce Financial Strategists™. She provides clients with focused divorce analysis and strategies for marital assets.


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