Child Support

Child Support

Child support is one of the simplest and yet most contentious aspects of most divorces.  The actual amount of child support is set by statute.  You can find a child support calculator on the utcourts.gov website (or just google it).  Put in each parent’s gross income, the number of children, and the number of nights the children will spend at each parent’s house and the calculator will spit out the child support number.  Child support payments go to the parent with physical custody (usually the parent with whom the kids spend the most nights).  Keep in mind that child support is the right of the children, not the parent, so it cannot be negotiated away as part of the divorce.

How Do We Calculate Income for Child Support Purposes?

When calculating child support, use gross income, rather than net or any other measure of income.  The simplest way to calculate income is to take a parent’s hourly wage, multiply by 40 (for 40 hours in a work week), multiply by 52 (for 52 weeks in a year) and then divide by 12 (for twelve months).  This should give you your gross monthly income, which you can then enter into the calculator.  This is the most common way to calculate gross income.

If you prefer, you can also use state or federal tax returns to find the gross income number, or pay stubs.  Just make sure that you are careful about which numbers you use.  For example, overtime pay, while included on a W-2 or a tax return, is generally not used in calculating child support (unless the parent consistently worked the overtime during the marriage).  Likewise, bonuses would only be countable as income if they occurred at regular intervals and were for predictable amounts.  Generally speaking, wage income is limited to the equivalent of one full time job.  Other income, however, may be included above and beyond the full-time wages of a parent.  For example, if you wrote a book and are receiving royalties for it, that would be considered income.  Likewise, if you have investments that generate income, the income from those investments is countable for child support purposes.

What if one parent is unemployed?

If one parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, income will be imputed to that parent.  If that parent has a work history, income will be imputed at their historical rate.  If the parent lacks any recent or relevant work history, income is usually imputed at minimum wage.  For income imputation purposes, gross imputed income at minimum wage is $1257 per month.

Can I Change the Amount of Child Support?

Though somewhat complex in its details and procedures, Utah law is fairly comprehensive about when and how child support can be modified.  The short version is that if either parent’s income changes significantly, child support can be modified to take that change into account.  The precise thresholds are as follows:  If it has been more than three years since the last modification, and the newly requested amount of support represents a change of at least 10%, then child support can be adjusted by motion.  This is a relatively easy process, and is meant to facilitate periodic updating of the child support numbers.  If it has been less than three years, but there has been a significant change in one parent’s income (usually a change of 30% or more), child support can by modified by filing a petition to modify.  This is a longer and more complex process.  Situations that would justify this early modification by petition are rare.  They might include loss of a job, disability, or some other equally serious event.

Can I increase/decrease child support if I’ve had another baby with someone else?

No.  The child support obligation is based on your responsibility to the particular children in your case.  Having additional children doesn’t change that in the eyes of the law, whether it’s a mother receiving child support who has additional children or a father paying child support who has additional children.  However, additional children can be used to mitigate an increase in child support, so long as the actual amount paid is not lowered by factoring those additional children into the equation.  The calculator supplied by the courts will take those children into account when generating a child support number.

What Does Child Support Cover?

Basically, child support goes towards a child’s day to day expenses (including food, clothing, and transportation).  It does not cover medical expenses or child care.  Those issues are usually dealt with separately.  Because of the way it is structured and calculated, it is really meant to cover a portion of those expenses incurred when the child is with the custodial parent.  When the child is with the non-custodial parent, that parent is responsible for those same things (food, toothpaste, pajamas, etc).  There is no requirement that the parent receiving the child support use it only for specific expenses.  As long as the children are properly taken care of, the court will not inquire very deeply into where, exactly, the money has been spent.  Thus, the child support money could be used to help cover costs of rent, to pay for food and clothing, to pay utility bills, or on toys, books, and games.

Note that child support is not intended to cover every expense of raising a child.  The custodial parent is also expected to contribute financially to raise the child, and some expenses will have to be worked out outside of the context of child support.  Paying for extra curricular activities, for example, or tuition for a private school would be something that the parents would need to discuss and decide how to cover.  If Dad were paying child support, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to expect Mom to be able to cover the cost of dance or music lessons simply because he pays her child support.  That would be an issue for them to discuss and decide mutually.  Likewise, Mom should expect that she will need to pitch in financially towards day to day expenses.  Parents are both expected to contribute financially to the needs of the children.

What About Other Child Related Expenses?

Medical expenses are treated separately from child support.  Generally speaking, any uninsured, out-of-pocket medical expenses will be divided equally between the parties.  This includes insurance premiums, which can be added to or deducted from the amount of child support, depending on the circumstances.  So, say that Dad pays child support to Mom of $100 per month.  He also insures the kids, paying $100 per month in premiums for a plan that covers himself, his two kids, and his new wife.  To calculate the cost of covering the children, simply divide the entire premium by the number of people covered (in this case 4) and then multiply by the number of children (in this case 2).  So he pays $50 per month towards medical expenses for the children.  Mom is responsible for half of that amount, so he deducts $25 per month from his child support obligation, and should only pay $75 per month.

Note that this method of calculating the cost per child of the premium is used even if the amount of the premium changes only a little or not at all by adding the children.  So even if Dad would pay $90 per month to cover himself and his new wife, and only $10 is added to the premium to cover the two children, he still gets credit for the full $50.

The same applies with respect to copays and uninsured expenses.  If Mom takes a kid to the doctor and pays a $20 copay, Dad has to reimburse her $10.  If the doctor prescribes an antibiotic, which Mom purchases for $10, dad has to reimburse her for $5.

Child care is also split evenly between the parties (for work and sometimes school related expenses only; can’t make your ex pay half the cost of a babysitter so you can go see Star Wars).  Although not strictly required, the courts will almost always order a “right of first refusal” if someone asks for it.  This basically means that a parent who needs child care has to offer the other parent the chance to watch the kids instead of paying for it.  This is usually beneficial to everyone; if, for example, it’s Mom that normally has the kids, and she offers to let Dad watch them rather than hire a sitter, everyone saves money, and Dad and the kids get to spend time together.  As long as scheduling works out, this is usually the best option.

Some expenses occupy a gray area.  Extra-curricular activities, for example, are usually split evenly between the parents, so long as each parent agrees in advance.  The parents are not required to share these costs, but it is not expected that child support will cover them either.  Child support is intended to go towards basics and necessities.  There is no presumption that it will be enough to cover things like sports, music lessons, or outdoor activities, so if parents want their kids to participate in these activities, they need to come to a separate understanding about how they will be funded.