You might think that your payment burden for child support is a simple or at least consistent calculation. But income can rise or fall, particularly in unexpected circumstances: In April 2019, Ohio announced that it has collected $10 million in unpaid child support from gambling jackpot winners over the past 5 years. While there’s a good chance you haven’t won the lottery, the odds are more than likely that, when it comes to child support, you haven’t been giving or receiving your fair share. According to census data, less than 44 percent of custodial parents reported receiving the full amount of child support owed.

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Lottery winnings are just one of many sources of nontraditional income used to calculate child support. Other sources include tips, dividends, trust income, and much more. Some states may not include means-tested public assistance, such as food stamps and Medicaid, or child support received for other children as income. If you’re one of the millions of Americans dealing with child support payments, consider speaking with a qualified family law attorney to ensure your payments are responsible and correct.

How is child support calculated from income?

Calculating child support can be a complicated process. Fortunately, many states have calculators or worksheets to facilitate the calculation. Different states use different standards of income, such as gross income, which is total pay before taxes, or net income, the income remaining after deductions have been made such as payroll taxes. New Mexico uses gross income while Illinois starts with gross income and then has a chart to convert gross income to net income.

Once gross or net income is determined for both parents, their incomes are combined. Next, the basic support obligation, or how much the parents would spend on the child or multiple children, must be determined. Many states have charts that outline the obligation, often by the number of children involved. Additional expenses may include health and dental insurance and other related expenses. Responsibility for medical and other expenses are often calculated can be paid “in proportion to his income, in addition to the basic obligation.”

A court may also impute, or determine, a salary in cases where one parent is unemployed or underemployed.

According to O’Flaherty Law, an Illinois-based family law firm, the court’s determination of your income in cases of unemployment will depend on the nature of that un-or-under employment. In short: Are you looking for a job? “If a parent’s unemployment or underemployment is voluntary, due to a lack of effort to find a job, a motivation to evade child support, or passing up on potential business opportunities, the court will use the unemployed or underemployed parent’s potential income to calculate child support, rather than his or her actual income,” writes Kevin O’Flaherty.

O’Flaherty suggests you consider these three points:

  • Is unemployment or underemployment voluntary?
  • If so, is the parent’s unemployment or underemployment in the best interest of the child?
  • If not, what would the unemployed or underemployed parent’s income be if he or she were fully employed?

If this sounds prohibitively expensive, consider the costs of raising a child—beyond just food, clothing, and shelter. Sarah Bennett at Walther, Bennett, Mayo, Honeycutt P.C., explains the idea of child support is “not calculated based upon exactly what expenses a parent could prove they have made on behalf of the child, such as clothes, shoes, school fees. It also includes the cost of maintaining a household, maintaining a house big enough for kids to live comfortably, heat, and air conditioning, and food for everyone.” She continues, “There is a view towards making more equitable the standard living between the households.”

Are there situations where child support is calculated differently from the calculation?

While many judges will use the standard child support calculations as dictated by the state, sometimes the judge may deviate from the guidelines in special cases. According to Laura SB Vallejo, a supervising attorney of the Parentage and Child Support Pro Se Advice Desk of the Chicago Legal Clinic, these deviations may occur in extreme situations of people who make an enormous amount of money or very little. Other cases can include additional allocations for children with special needs, private schooling expenses, and more.

Does the calculation factor in the amount of time spent with the children?

The calculation of child support is impacted by shared responsibility by parents. While each state has different standards of time—Illinois defines it as 146 overnights while New Mexico defines it as 35 percent of time spent with a parent—the child support obligation is multiplied by 1.5 to determine the shared obligation of caring for the child. The percentage of time spent with children overnight will be used to modify the payments.

Can child support payments be modified due to changes in circumstances?

Child support payments can be modified when there are “substantial changes in circumstances.” That can include the loss or gain of a job, cut in hours, and other changes to the level of income when the order of child support order was made (like the aforementioned lottery win). Substantial circumstances can differ per state; New Mexico defines it as when “the new calculation of support will go up or down more than 20 percent of the current support payment.”

However, to modify child support payments, an order by a judge must be made. “That number is fixed until somebody files proper motion, gives proper notice, and gets the order changed,” says Vallejo. “The order is retroactive when you filed the motion and sent proper notice.” Losing one’s job is not sufficient to getting child support reduced; getting an order from the judge is required.

When should I seek an attorney?

An attorney can help with complicated cases involving child support, such as cases when there is new evidence about the paternity of the child or an issue with due process. Moreover, a lawyer may be advisable if dealing with substantial changes in circumstances in getting child support modified. The intention of the child support program is to encourage self-sufficiency and child well-being. Ensuring proper payment will give your child the best chance at a healthy, stable life.