Parents have a legal responsibility to provide for their children, and these duties do not cease to exist just because your marriage dissolves. For couples with children, one of the most critical aspects of a divorce proceeding, is establishing an order of custody and financial support for that child. By putting the specifics of these obligations in writing, California courts ensure that both parents are held fiscally responsible for the upbringing of their offspring.
But what, exactly, this child support looks like, in terms of dollars and cents, will be different for every divorce. Just as no two couples are the same, so are no two divorces. When determining the amount of child support, courts use a specific set of guidelines, which will produce an individualized plan that caters to each family’s unique needs.
Here’s a brief run-down of those considerations, and what you can expect your final California child support order to look like.
Child Support in California
Any time a child is under the care of one parent, that parent is responsible for meeting the costs of their child’s basic, daily needs. But—as is often the case in custody arrangements—the custodial time allotted to each parent is rarely equal. The far more common scenario, is when one parent bears the most physical responsibility for the child, while the other parent has only partial physical custody. Child support, then, is meant to compensate for situations where this custodial care is unequal. Usually, the difference is made up by the non-custodial parent, however, in some situations, a judge might order both parents to pay.
As a general rule, parents have very little say over how much, and who will be required to make these payments, but according to California law(and just about everywhere else in the country, for that matter), this support is mandatory.
Calculating Child Support in California
When constructing a child support order in California, judges will typically follow California’s child support guidelines. Under this process, a number of independent factors are evaluated, however, the three biggest elements that impact the end result, are:
- The number of children that qualify for support;
- How much time each parent has with their children (or rather, the amount of physical custodial time each parent has); and,
- Each parent’s disposable income.
Gross Annual Income – Mandatory Deductions ÷ Twelve = Net Disposable Income
Gross annual income comprises of earnings from all sources, including regular salary, bonuses, commissions, rental income, pensions, and royalties. It can also encompass benefits from a business ownership, and even monies obtained from self-employment benefits.
Mandatory deductions required by law, on the other hand, would comprise of any tax obligations, job expenses, health insurance premiums, and other hardships (such as child support owed to a previous relationship, or health expenses).
After dividing the end result by twelve, the court is left with a pretty good idea of what each individual’s net disposable income is each month. Armed with this information, a judge can then attribute a percentage of that number toward child support, based on the amount of physical custodial time each parent spends with their child.
Other Factors Influencing Child Support
While the formula for determining child support in California might sound fairly scientific, there are still some considerations which could influence the final figure. If the mathematical outcome of these calculations isn’t “fair or reasonable,” judges have the power to alter the amount—higher or lower—at their discretion. Some of the circumstances that might prompt them to do so would be if:
- A parent’s extraordinarily high income exceeds a child’s needs;
- The contribution doesn’t match the custodial deficit;
- Both parents spend roughly equal time with the child, but one pays more in housing; and,
- Any child care costs, health expenses, or special needs that aren’t accounted for under the usual formula.
To get an idea of what your child support payments might be, based on California’s guidelines, try using this child support calculator. However, understand that these figures are just estimates, and in the end, the final amount will be up to the judge.
Appropriate Uses of Child Support
A common misconception assumes that child support in California is meant to cover only the bare necessities, and this is far from the truth. While child support money is certainly meant to put clothes on the kid’s back and food in their belly, courts expect these monies to be used for more than just essential survival. (Because let’s be honest, when it comes to kids, the term “needs” is fluid, and basically amounts to a bottomless pit). That being said, other legitimate expenditures might include education, health insurance and medical bills, childcare, transportation, extra-curricular activities, and, yes, even entertainment. A parent might also spend child support on things like heating, electricity, and internet, since these bills all address a child’s needs and expectations.
Unless basic needs aren’t being met, the custodial parent isn’t required to make an accounting of how child support is being used—and this standard probably won’t change. Not only are the costs of raising a child enormous and sometimes difficult to track, but they’re also extremely ambiguous. Requiring a custodial parent to make an accounting would place an unacceptable amount of strain on an already-overloaded court system, to say nothing of the burden it would put on the parents, themselves. It would be impractical.
So, while you probably shouldn’t use child support money to leave your kid at home and go on a solo vacation without them, the custodial parent has a lot of freedom when it comes to choosing how they spend child support. And since kids are so thoroughly blended into every single breathing moment of a parent’s life, this actually makes a lot of sense.
Duration of Child Support Payments
Another erroneous assumption that people often make about child support in California, is that payments automatically end once the child turns eighteen. Though teenagers might disagree, eighteen is not, in fact, a magical number at which point a child no longer needs the help and financial support of their parents—especially since many are still in school when that birthday occurs.
Because of this, California law states that child support payments are mandatory until the child turns nineteen, or until high school graduation, whichever comes first. Therefore, you can’t just stop paying support just because your kid hits the big one-eight. Unless your child:
- Marries or registers a domestic partnership;
- Joins the military;
- Is emancipated; or,
If high school hasn’t ended, then neither has your obligation to support.
Child Support and Visitation
It can be frustrating to try and wrangle child support payments out of an uncooperative former spouse each month—no one is arguing that. However, we have to stress, that being late or missing payments on child support does not give a custodial parent the right to withhold visitation from their former partner. In fact, doing so is actually a crime, and could adversely affect their own rights under the custody agreement. Bottom line? Child support isn’t the price of an admission ticket to see your child. It’s money to help offset the significant costs of raising a kid, and a late or default payment cannot diminish a parent’s basic rights to access their child.
If you are having problems with your former partner paying child support, a Stockton divorce lawyer can help you file a complaint with the court. The California judicial system takes child support seriously, and there are proper channels available to address incomplete or late payments without damaging your own rights under the custody arrangement.
Child Support Attorneys in California
Unfortunately, as much as we hate it, children are the ones usually hurt the most in divorce. And while nothing can compensate for the emotional trauma they face, child support can—at the very least—help them maintain some semblance of normalcy and comfort in the upturned world they’re expected to make the best of.
If you or someone you love have more question about child support in California—or any other divorce related questions—we can help. Call us at (209) 989-4425, or get in touch online to schedule your consultation today, and let us make sure your child support needs are being met.