In California, when the parents of minor children get divorced, the non-custodial parent may be ordered by the court to make child support payments to the custodial parent. Supporting a child is a parent’s legal obligation whether that parent is single, married, divorced, or remarried. Here are the answers to the top ten most frequently asked questions our child support lawyers receive about child support in the state of California:
1. HOW ARE CHILD SUPPORT PAYMENT AMOUNTS DETERMINED IN CALIFORNIA?
Statewide guidelines have been established by California lawmakers that generally determine what the amount of a child support payment will be in any particular case. As you might imagine, it’s a complicated formula. Today, many judges and divorce lawyers rely on specialized legal software to determine an appropriate amount of child support. But on what information is the child support “calculation” based? The calculation is based upon the number of children, the income of each of the parents, the amount of time that each parent has custody, their tax filing status and deductible expenses, and other pertinent considerations.
The information parents provide to the court regarding their incomes must be accurate. Parents will need all of the documents that provide information about their income, taxes, and deductions: tax returns, paycheck stubs, and W2s or 1099s are only the beginning. Parents will also need to save and organize all of their bills, receipts, and anything else that provides financial information.
A hardship deduction may also be granted when the parent paying child support has extraordinary medical expenses or uninsured catastrophic losses. In these circumstances, a judge has the discretion in deciding whether to grant a hardship deduction. If you have circumstances such as disability, debt, or unemployment, a child support lawyer can explain your situation to the judge and work on your behalf for a fair child support resolution.
2. FOR HOW LONG ARE CHILD SUPPORT PAYMENTS REQUIRED?
If the child is still residing with the custodial parent, child support ends in California when child turns 18 and has graduated from high school. If the child is still enrolled full-time in high school, support payments may continue until the child graduates or turns 19. In some rare cases where a child has special needs, the court may extend the child support obligation beyond the child’s 18th birthday.
3. IS THERE A CAP ON THE AMOUNT OF CHILD SUPPORT THAT CAN BE ORDERED IN CALIFORNIA?
No. Unlike several other states, California does not impose a cap on the amount of child support that can be ordered. The state’s child support guidelines are designed to take into account every income range and a number of other variables. An experienced child support attorney can usually ensure that you eventually receive or pay a proper and fair amount of child support.
4. WHAT IF THE AMOUNT CALCULATED IS FAR MORE THAN NEEDED TO RAISE A CHILD?
What it takes to raise a child differs with every child and family, but California law says that a child is entitled to a lifestyle comparable to that of his or her parents. Sometimes, an amount may appear high if the custodial parent’s income is significantly lower than the non-custodial parent’s income. When the amount is genuinely “excessive,” the court may in some rare cases overlook the state’s guidelines. Again, an experienced family lawyer usually can see to it that a parent receives or pays the appropriate amount of child support.
5. WHAT IF THE AMOUNT IS ENOUGH TO SUPPORT THE OTHER PARENT AS WELL?
In some cases, this can actually happen in California. State law allows the child to live a lifestyle consistent with what the higher income parent can provide, so when the parent paying child support has a significantly high income, this is not an unusual result. Again, an experienced California family lawyer can usually make sure that a parent receives or pays the appropriate amount of child support.
6. WHAT INCOME MUST BE CONSIDERED UNDER THE CHILD SUPPORT GUIDELINES?
All income from all sources is to be considered including income from employment, interest or investment income, and cash flow from businesses. The child support calculation is not based exclusively on a parent’s tax return. For example, if a parent owns a business and counts any personal expenses as business expenses, that amount is added back to personal income when determining a fair amount of child support.
7. IF THERE IS MORE THAN ONE CHILD, IS THE AMOUNT OF SUPPORT THE SAME FOR EACH SIBLING?
Not necessarily, and in fact, not usually. The formula used to determine the child support amount presumes that children at different ages will have different needs and different expenses. And while you would think that older children’s expenses would be deemed costlier, in the state of California, the payment amount required by the child support guidelines generally declines as children get older.
8. WHAT IF THE CHILD SUPPORT FUNDS ARE NOT USED FOR THE CHILD?
California law does not spell out how child support funds must be used, and parents are not required to account for their use of the funds. General living expenses are presumed to benefit both the child and the custodial parent. If you believe that the situation is egregious and that your child’s needs are being neglected, consult an experienced family law attorney about your legal rights and options in your specific case.
9. DOES A CUSTODIAL PARENT HAVE TO PAY ALL OF A CHILD’S EXPENSES?
No. Child support is designed to provide for basic living expenses. It is not presumed to include private school tuitions, extracurricular, or recreational activities. In most cases, parents will need to make arrangements for those kinds of expenses apart from the child support payments. It’s not unusual for a non-custodial parent to pay both child support and unofficially pay other expenses as well.
10. WHAT IF CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGE AFTER CHILD SUPPORT HAS BEEN DETERMINED?
Over time, circumstances will inevitably change for one or both parents, and the original child support order may need to be modified. A child support modification may be justified by life changes like unemployment, a change of jobs, serious injury, illness, or disability, a new child with a new partner; or a move out of the jurisdiction. A modification can change the monthly amount you pay in the future, but if you’ve already fallen behind on child support payments, California’s Compromise of Arrears Program (COAP) may be able to help some parents in some circumstances reduce the amount of back child support they owe.
A COAP settlement only applies to payments that are already past due. Only a child support order modification will change the amount that a parent must continue to pay each month. In southern California, consult an experienced Orange County child support attorney if you are a custodial parent and you need more child support from your ex, or if you are a non-custodial parent and you are seeking to make a lower child support payment each month.