When parents divorce, the amount of child support payable from one to the other is never left to chance. Courts take the position that children are entitled to live as well post-divorce as they did when their parents were together. The obligation to support them takes precedence over almost every other post-divorce financial consideration. If you're facing divorce, you and your spouse can agree to an amount of support, but it must be in your child's best interests.
All state legislatures have committed to certain guidelines for calculating child support – mathematical equations that apply in all divorces within the jurisdiction. The majority of states use the income shares model. This takes both parents' incomes into consideration and each parent pays a percentage toward the children's care commensurate with his contribution to the combined income total. A handful of states simply use a percentage of the non-custodial parent's income based on the number of children he must support. Three states – Delaware, Hawaii and Montana – use a more sophisticated version of the income shares method. In all cases, parents must typically calculate support based on their state's method before they seek the court's permission to adjust it upward or downward as part of their divorce action. If parents agree to a different amount, the court must approve it and incorporate it into the final divorce decree. If it's deemed unfair to the children, a judge will not do this.
Judges can take it upon themselves to deviate from a guideline's child support amount as well, and they will do so under certain circumstances. For example, in Maryland, the court can adjust support if a divorce's custody arrangement calls for the children to spend 35 percent or more of their time with the non-custodial parent. In Alabama, a judge might deviate from the guideline support amount when the non-custodial parent lives some distance from his children and it's anticipated that he will incur a lot of travel expenses to facilitate visitation. If a parent feels that the support amount is unfair, he can petition the court to change it during his divorce proceedings, but such efforts are usually met with limited success.
If you and your spouse want to deviate from a state guideline amount of support, most courts impose a few requirements. For example, parents can't agree to a different amount in California if either of them receive public assistance or there is evidence of coercion – for example, one parent bullying the other into asking the court to vary from the guideline amount.
Parents cannot agree to waive support entirely, and it's highly unlikely that a court would approve a marital settlement agreement that includes such a provision. This money is meant for your children's care and well-being; as a parent, you can't decline this right on their behalf.
Read More: Felony Child Support Laws
Office of Child Support
A state's office of child support usually only enforces or modifies existing orders. An agreement – such as a marital settlement agreement including child support provisions – must be submitted to the court and signed off on by a judge before it is legally binding.
- California Virtual Self-Help Law Center: Can Parents Make Their Own Child Support Agreement?
- The People's Law Library of Maryland: Legal Overview of Child Support
- Florida State Courts: Instructions for Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form 12902(f)(1) (PDF)
- Superior Court of California, County of Orange: Child Support
- National Conference of State Legislatures: Child Support Guideline Models by State
- Gayle Zieman, Ph.D.: Parenting New Mexico: Child Support – Facts and Myths
- Alabama Administrative Office of the Courts: Rule 32 – Child Support Guidelines (PDF)
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