Child Support Guidelines

Unlike most other aspects of divorce, child support is an area where the federal government has an interest and has become involved. Children who are not adequately cared for add to the strain on the safety net that the federal government funds. After studies revealed serious inconsistencies in the way judges were determining child support, Congress passed laws in the 1980s requiring states to create and use what are known as “child support guidelines.” The federal government has also become increasingly involved in the enforcement of child support. Among other things, they have made it possible to withhold portions of employee paychecks and deduct funds from tax refunds to ensure child support is paid.

The goals of the child support guidelines adopted by the states are generally the same. Tennessee’s includes the following list of typical goals:

  • To decrease the number of impoverished children living in single parent families.
  • To make child support awards more equitable by ensuring more consistent treatment of persons in similar circumstances.
  • To improve efficiency of the court process by promoting settlements and by giving courts and parties guidance in establishing level of support awards.
  • To encourage parents paying support to maintain contact with their children.
  • To ensure that when parents live separately, the economic impact on the children is minimized and to the extent that either parent enjoys a higher standard of living, the children share(s) in that higher standard.
  • To ensure that a minimum amount of child support is set for parents with a low income in order to maintain a bond between the parent and the child, to establish patterns of regular payment, and to enable the enforcement agency and party receiving support to maintain contact with the parent paying support.

Congress’ effort to improve the consistency of child support was successful in that calculations within a state are consistent. However, since the states maintained control over the implementation of the child support guidelines there is considerable variation between each state. In general, each state chose to use one of three approaches to determine the amount of child support.

Some states use a “percentage of income” method that determines child support as a percentage of income of just the payer. The percentage to be paid is based on the number of children and, in some states, on the amount of income. There is variation among states as to what items can be deducted from income prior to the calculation. Proponents’ rights groups have been fighting against usage of this method because they believe that ignoring the income of the custodial spouse is highly unfair.

More than two-thirds of the states use a method for determining child support called the “income shares” approach.[i] This approach is based on the concept that the children’s proportion of total parental income should not be affected by the divorce. A total amount of child support is determined based on the number and age of the children and the combined income of both parents. The amount of child support to be paid by the noncustodial parent is calculated by multiplying his or her share of parental income by the total amount of child support required.

A few states base their guidelines on the Melson formula. The Melson formula is an enhancement of the income shares model. It takes into account the needs of the parents to support themselves. A self-support reserve is taken out of each parent’s income prior to the calculation of that share of the children’s basic support. The Melson is more complex than the other approaches but, because it incorporates the parent’s needs, parents generally perceive it to be the fairest approach.

Although the state child support guidelines take into account the number of children, they also recognize that raising two children is not twice as expensive as raising one. Therefore, the guidelines reduce the support amount per child in larger families to best approximate the true needs.

One major motivation for the creation of child support guidelines was to reduce poverty in single parent households. If this were their only use they might only apply to those with lower incomes. However, the guidelines in most states were designed to apply to most people. For those families with the highest incomes, many states cap the amount of child support required by the guidelines. Generally, such fortunate couples agree that an appropriate amount for child support exceeds the minimums identified by the guidelines. If they do not, the court can still require such higher payments in order to meet the children’s pre-divorce standard of living.

In some states, support orders are automatically reviewed every few years to make sure payments are consistent with current income and the support guidelines.[ii] The guidelines themselves are also reviewed periodically and such reviews have become quite contentious affairs. In some cases states have made significant changes in state guidelines. When this occurs parents may be allowed to revisit their support orders to take advantage of increases or reductions in the amount they receive or pay.

One of the explicit goals states have when they create child support guidelines is to improve the efficiency of the court system by promoting settlements. Since so many child support arrangements are arrived at outside of court, and some states do not require the arrangements to be reviewed by a court, we advise parents to avoid an arrangement that results in anything less than the guideline amount. Such agreements, even when they include alternate compensation, can open the door to a future lawsuit for failure to pay the guideline amount. Regardless of any agreement you make with your former spouse, the court maintains an interest in your children’s well-being until they are independent.

Information about each state’s child support guidelines can be found online.

[i] “Guideline Models by State,” Washington State Department of Social and Health Services.

[ii] “Setting Guidelines for Child Support,” American Bar Association.

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