How is Child Support Calculated?

A question we are often asked on this site is “How is Child Support Calculated?” There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because it depends on where you live.  

By | Answers by Brette Sember, J.D. 

Each state has their own formula to determine the amount of child support that will be ordered. States base this amount on a number of factors in their child support guidelines and use different models to calculate child support.  

The most widely used model is the Income Shares Model which takes into account both parent’s income to determine the amount of child support. The Percentage of Income Model bases child support on a percentage of the non-custodial parent’s income. And the Melson Formula is similar to the income shares model, but takes into consideration the income needed to meet each parent’s basic needs before child support is set.  

State child support calculations are based primarily on the parent’s income. In most states, both parents are usually required to fill out a financial statement prior to calculating child support. This allows the court to understand each parent’s financial situation and have a basis for calculating the support.  

How is the standard amount of child support calculated?

Depending on where you live, the standard amount of child support will be based on one or both parent’s income, the number of minor children to be supported, and the custody arrangements.  

Income – the starting point for establishing child support is one or both parent’s gross income from all sources. From this amount, certain deductions are made for things like income taxes, health care costs, social security taxes, etc. If a parent is self-employed, information from prior tax returns will be used to estimate the average monthly income for that parent.  

If a parent is paying alimony or child support from a previous relationship, this amount is usually deducted from that parent’s gross income. Conversely, if a parent is receiving alimony or child support from a previous relationship, the amount of this support may be considered income for that parent.  

Number of Dependents – The court will also need to know how many minor children from the marriage will need to be supported. The court also considers other minor dependents of either parent from previous relationships.  

Custodial Arrangements – State support guidelines factor in which parent has physical custody and the amount of time the child spends with each parent. The courts generally use the number of overnight visits the child spends with each parent when calculating the amount of child support. And many states have specific formulas for calculating child support for primary custody, shared custody and split custody situations.  

If one parent has primary custody of the child and the other parent has parenting time every other weekend, the court will order a reasonable amount of child support to be paid to the custodial parent. If the parents share physical custody, the amount of child support ordered will generally be small. Even if overnight visits are relatively equal, the court will still factor in income, the number of dependents, childcare costs, and healthcare to arrive at the amount of child support to be paid.  

Additional factors that may be included in a child support order

Some states can also take into considerations the child’s need when determining child support. These factors can include:  

  • Healthcare Costs – including which parent carries health insurance on the child and how uninsured medical expenses will be paid for. 

  • Work-related Childcare Expenses – including which parent pays for childcare and how these costs will be shared. 

  • Other Expenses – including extraordinary expenses such as educational costs for private schools, extracurricular activities, services for a disabled child, and travel expenses if parents live far apart.  

Ultimately, a judge may set the amount of support higher or lower than the calculated amount based on the individual factors of the case. Most child support guidelines and formulas are complex, but you can use the child support calculator for your state to estimate the support that could be ordered in your case.  

FAQs about How Child Support is Calculated

How is child support calculated?

Melissa's Question: When paying child support, do they take into consideration what money gets paid out in bills before they determine what gets paid in child support?

Brette's Answer: There is a formula used to determine child support. Go to your state court web page and check the family court section for child support information. You can start by looking up your state divorce information, and then clicking on the link for child support calculations.

Are all sources income used to calculate child support?

Mary's Question: My ex is working a full time and a part time job. We have not set the final child support amount. Will the courts base child support on the income from both jobs or only one job?

Brette's Answer: Child support takes into account all income. Good luck.

Will my income be used in determining how much child support he pays?

Lillian's Question: My children's father wants to lower what he pays for support. Can the court hold it against me in how much I make to determine what he has to pay in support?

Brette's Answer: Yes. Child support is income-based and in most states, both parents' income is used when calculating the amount.

How do I fill out the child worksheet if I don't know his income?

Lara's Question: I'm filing for a divorce myself and I was told that I have to fill out a child support worksheet. My husband refuses to give me his monthly income. Do I just fill out my half of the worksheet or is there anything specific that I need to do? He once told me his average income was between $450 and $500 a week after taxes.

Brette's Answer: You can only swear to your own information. If they are asking you estimate his income, you can do that. If you have any questions, ask the court clerk when you hand the form in.

Is he obligated to pay child support if he's unemployed?

Elyse's Question: My husband has not worked for the last 9 months and things are just about over between us. Would the court make him get a job to pay child support? He says he won't work so I won't get a dime!

Brette's Answer: Your husband is obligated to pay child support - there is a minimum that must be paid even if a person is unemployed. In some states child support can be ordered based on what the person would earn if he or she worked minimum wage. Talk to an attorney.

What if he works less so the child support will be lower?

Camille's Question: My ex-husband is considering going back to college and working as little as possible as a "self-employed carpenter". How can I ensure that I get the child support my son deserves? I heard that if a non-custodial parent is underemployed or unemployed, the court may consider earning potential instead of actual income.

Brette's Answer: That is correct. Document what he's earning now if possible.

What if he's lying about his finances to lower child support?

Elyse's Question: What if my ex is hiding finances and claiming that he is unemployed in order to lower child support payments?

Brette's Answer: You hire an attorney who will subpoena records and possibly hire an investigator.

Can I exclude a one-time capital gain from the support calculation?

Question: We have agreed the property I am inheriting is not a divisible marital asset. However, when my sisters and I sell it, we will each have to claim a capital gain. This will temporarily increase my gross income in the year of sale. My spousal and child support are based on income.  How can I exempt this income from my support calculation?

Brette's Answer: You can't. Spousal support and child support are based on income and separate income is part of the calculation.

Do we have to use the child support guidelines?

Vanessa's Question: Is there a limit to how much money they can take from you for child support? My ex has a current support order and I am putting in one for myself. With two support orders, according to the "electronic worksheet", he will have nothing left to live off of after he pays all his child support. Do we have to use the child support guidelines?

Brette's Answer: You can choose to opt out of the state guidelines and the court can also deviate from it.

Can we come up with our own amount of child support?

Terry's Question: My spouse and I are attempting to do a uncontested divorce online. Can we come up with our own amount of child support for one child? Each of us will have the child for approximately half of every month.

Brette's Answer: In most states you can go outside the child support standards if you have a good reason to do so. You may need to offer an explanation to the court for why you wish to do this, and make it clear that you both agree to it. Even so, it is up to the judge to decide if your agreement is acceptable. In practice, most courts are pleased to have parents who can agree and as long as it seems fair, they are reluctant to make a fuss. Good luck.

Why do I owe child support if I was a stay at home mom before we divorced?

Lidia's Question: I was a stay at home mom before he filed for divorce, even during the divorce I did not work. He has sole custody of the child. Once I started working he filed for child support and I have to pay $700 a month. He makes 2x as much as I do and lives with his girlfriend who pays half the bills. I have to support myself and am on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. Why do I have to pay child support when during the marriage I was stay at home mom?

Brette's Answer: Child support is about the current situation. The parent who spends the most time with the child receives financial support from the other parent to help pay for the child's expenses. It is calculated based only on the parties' current incomes.

What if I can't pay my bills because child support is so high?

Cindy's Question: My son went to live with his dad and has been there for about 1 year. My ex is taking me to court for child support. I pay my sons breakfast and lunch at school, I bought all his school clothes, hunting license etc. I work 2 jobs to make ends meet. My ex makes 3x more a month than I do. If I pay the 20% of my income, I will not be able to pay my bills. I want to continue contributing to my son, but I'm not able to pay the 20%. Do you have any suggestions?

Brette's Answer: First of all, I think you ought to add up what you're spending on all these things you're paying for your son. I think you might find it adds up to or at least equals a big chunk of your ordered child support amount. If you stopped doing all the extras which are not ordered by the court, you might be able to meet your obligation. I understand how you feel though because you're paying things directly and see benefits from it. It is hard to hand money over and trust your ex to take care of it, but you don't want to get into a position where you're in arrears where you could possibly lose your license or have your tax refund taken. If you think your support order is too high, file for a modification.

Does a man still owe child support if he has more than six children?

April's Question: If a man has more than six children, does he still owe child support on them?

Brette's Answer: Yes. He could have 100 children and still have to pay. Maybe what your confusion is here is that most states cap the child support percentage once you get to 5 children.

Will my child support be given priority over the "Other" woman's?

Lori: My husband had two children as the result of an affair. We have two children of our own who were born first. I stayed with him till I could no longer tolerate it, and now we are getting a divorce. My question is, will his child support be readjusted for the two affair children and will my children be given priority?

Brette's Answer: He will still pay the same percentage for the other children. But, now that he has to pay child support for two more children, his expenses have increased, so his available income has gone down, which will decrease the income available to apply child support to. There is no such thing as priority among children for child support.

Why is my child support less than the woman who filed first?

D's Question: I understand you say there is no priority in child support, but why is it that the children from a marriage get less child support than a child from an affair just because they have filed first. If this is the case, then who ever files first gets more support.

Brette's Answer: There isn't priority, but income is reduced when child support is being paid to the first case. So there is less income available when the second case is filed.

Can my ex get child support lowered if my daughter has a job?

Debra's Question: My daughter has been working since she turned 16 so that she can save money to buy a car and for college. She typically works 30 hours a week and brings home about $1200 a month. My ex-husband has stated that this allows him a reduction of his current child support order. Is this correct?

Brette's Answer: Unless she is emancipated, living independently, no. Good luck.

Why does my lawyer need a software program to calculate the child support?

Lucy's Question: My lawyer states her program for child support has a "bug" and miscalculating amount of proposed monthly child support. It has been two months and it still not corrected.  They said the company is aware.  Why can’t they simply buy another program, borrow a program from another lawyer, or calculate the old fashion way?  Frustrating!

Brette's Answer: You don't need a program to calculate child support, although that's certainly a convenient way to do it. Get in touch with your lawyer -- by email, phone message or even fax and nicely explain you've been waiting two months and need them to resolve this now.