California Child Support Guideline Factors

What is "guideline" child support and how does the court calculate it?

California Child Support Guideline Factors

You may have heard the word “guideline” child support. But do you know what it means and how the Court determine guideline child support?

Calculating the guideline formula involves a few steps. The first is actually inputting all of the factors into the program. The program then produces an amount presumed to be correct. The presumption may be rebutted, and therefore the child support adjusted, under limited circumstances. In addition to the base child support amount, the court has the power to order what the law calls child-support add-ons. Some add-ons are mandatory while others are discretionary.

California Family Code 4053

Before we get into calculation and the factors, let’s be clear on what the Family Code expects from judges when determining child support. For this, we look to Family Code 4053. This code states:

“In implementing the statewide uniform guideline, the courts shall adhere to the following principles:

(a) A parent’s first and principal obligation is to support his or her minor children according to the parent’s circumstances and station in life.

(b) Both parents are mutually responsible for the support of their children.

(c) The guideline takes into account each parent’s actual income and level of responsibility for the children.

(d) Each parent should pay for the support of the children according to his or her ability.

(e) The guideline seeks to place the interests of children as the state’s top priority.

(f) Children should share in the standard of living of both parents. Child support may therefore appropriately improve the standard of living of the custodial household to improve the lives of the children.

(g) Child support orders in cases in which both parents have high levels of responsibility for the children should reflect the increased costs of raising the children in two homes and should minimize significant disparities in the children’s living standards in the two homes.

(h) The financial needs of the children should be met through private financial resources as much as possible.

(i) It is presumed that a parent having primary physical responsibility for the children contributes a significant portion of available resources for the support of the children.

(j) The guideline seeks to encourage fair and efficient settlements of conflicts between parents and seeks to minimize the need for litigation.

(k) The guideline is intended to be presumptively correct in all cases, and only under special circumstances should child support orders fall below the child support mandated by the guideline formula.

(l) Child support orders must ensure that children actually receive fair, timely, and sufficient support reflecting the state’s high standard of living and high costs of raising children compared to other states.”

What is the Court's Responsibility When it Calculates Child Support?

So now we get what the code expects of the court. Let’s get to how the court calculates child support. Fortunately, child support is relatively easy to calculate. Although the Family Code lays out what looks like a complex formula, computer programs exist that do the heavy lifting for lawyers and judges. The factors inputted into the computer program are many but the most common ones are:

  1. The number of children,
  2. Each parent's parenting time percentage,
  3. The tax filing status for each parent such as married filing jointly with the other parent, married filing jointly with your spouse, married filing separate, head a household, married living apart, etc.
  4. Gross (before tax) income for each parent,
  5. Health insurance deductions for each parent,
  6. Applicable mortgage interest and property tax reductions for each parent. These are relevant because they lower a parent's taxable income and therefore arguably provide that parent with a greater disposable income,
  7. Any hardship deductions that may be applicable,
  8. Mandatory retirement deductions from gross income,
  9. Union dues and other relevant dues that may be deducted,
  10. Childcare expenses.

The above are not the only factors but they are the most common ones we see in child support cases.

Family Code 4050 through 4076 set forth California's uniform guideline laws for child support.

If multiple children are involved, the law allows the allocation between each child. California Family Code 4055(B)(8) states:

“(8) Unless the court orders otherwise, the order for child support shall allocate the support amount so that the amount of support for the youngest child is the amount of support for one child, and the amount for the next youngest child is the difference between that amount and the amount for two children, with similar allocations for additional children. However, this paragraph does not apply to cases in which there are different time-sharing arrangements for different children or where the court determines that the allocation would be inappropriate in the particular case.”

What Does the Court Consider Income for Child Support Purposes?

Parents who may pay child support sometimes panic when they see child support is based on gross income. That parent is not really paying from their gross. California's guideline formula calculates the net monthly disposable income and applies certain deductions to get to that amount. The court has the power to make adjustments if what the formula sets forth is inconsistent with what the net disposable income actually is after deduction of taxes. The court however rarely takes into consideration anything other than tax deductions unless the other deduction is allowed by the guideline formula.

You may be asking, "what is considered income?" Income's definition is very broad. California Family Code 4058 states:

“(a) The annual gross income of each parent means income from whatever source derived, except as specified in subdivision (c) and includes, but is not limited to, the following:

(1) Income such as commissions, salaries, royalties, wages, bonuses, rents, dividends, pensions, interest, trust income, annuities, workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment insurance benefits, disability insurance benefits, social security benefits, and spousal support actually received from a person not a party to the proceeding to establish a child support order under this article.

(2) Income from the proprietorship of a business, such as gross receipts from the business reduced by expenditures required for the operation of the business.

(3) In the discretion of the court, employee benefits or self-employment benefits, taking into consideration the benefit to the employee, any corresponding reduction in living expenses, and other relevant facts.

(b) The court may, in its discretion, consider the earning capacity of a parent in lieu of the parent’s income, consistent with the best interests of the children.

(c) Annual gross income does not include any income derived from child support payments actually received, and income derived from any public assistance program, eligibility for which is based on a determination of need. Child support received by a party for children from another relationship shall not be included as part of that party’s gross or net income.”

California court decisions have clarified the definition of income

This list is not the beginning and end of what the court may consider as gross income. Over the years California law has interpreted this code and often expanded its definition. That's why the code includes the words "including but not limited to…" Those words are important because they give the courts the ability to add on. Some of the more common additions include lottery winnings, recurring monetary gifts from a parent or parents, a military person's basic allowance for housing or for subsistence, stock options that have not been exercised, bonus or commission income, etc.

Over the years, California appellate decisions have also clarified what is not income for child support purposes. These include the actual life insurance death benefits, derivative Social Security benefits, equity in a residence that is not yet disbursed, stocks available for sale that have not yet been sold (these are generally stocks a business owner may receive through the sale of the business), speculative income, money from student loans that were not used for books or tuition (that is because the student still has to pay it back), lump-sum personal injury settlements or awards (although this issue can be tricky under certain circumstances) and an inheritance.

Do not take the above list on face value as if this is the way it will be on every case. There are exceptions to these rules and a common one is considering for child support purposes the rate of return on money that may otherwise not be calculated into the guideline formula.

The above list is also not exclusive. That means there are other types of money that may be excluded from the child support calculation.

What Happens When a Parent Refuses to Work?

Another common question and source of confusion is what happens when a parent refuses to work even though that parent has the ability to do so. The court in a child support hearing has the discretion to impute income to a parent if that parent has the ability, capacity and opportunity to be employed and earn money but is refusing to do so.

This is not something a court will do just do for the heck of it. Not everybody who does not work is imputed to them minimum-wage or some other amount. The parent who wants to impute income to the other parent needs to come to court with evidence of these factors. We sometimes see courts keep the nonworking parent who has the ability, opportunity and capacity on a short leash when it comes to employment. This includes orders that mandate the parent to seek employment.