How Are Child Support Costs Figured Out in California?

by John Stevens J.D.

Like many other states, California has established statewide child support guidelines to provide consistent child support awards for similarly-situated parents throughout the state. The amount of support ordered is based on two factors: the net income of both parents and the amount of time each parent has custody of the child. Attorneys and judges use computer programs to produce a final support figure. The amount awarded is subject to periodic adjustments to accommodate changes in circumstances.

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Net Income

California considers the average monthly net income of both parents in calculating an award amount for child support. “Income,” in this context, includes income from almost any source, but does not include money received for child support payments, money received for a student loan, or any need-based public assistance program. Expenses are then deducted from this gross income amount to determine each parent’s net income. Expenses such as income taxes, deductions for union dues and retirement benefits (if required by the employer), any child or spousal support payments made under a court order, and job-related expenses are all deductible from the gross income amount.

Custody

For purposes of calculating a child support amount, custody refers to the amount of time each parent has physical responsibility of the children. Generally, as the amount of time a child spends with the parent making child support payments increases, the amount of support awarded decreases. Recognizing the potential for a payor spouse to seek custody for the sole purpose of reducing the child support amount, courts tend to view sudden custody requests by a payor parent, made shortly after the other parent requests child support, with suspicion.

Modifying

Child support orders may be modified any time before the payor parent’s obligation to pay ends. Unlike spousal support, parents may not agree to change the child support amount on their own. Any agreement to change the child support amount must be approved by a judge. To change a child support order, the parent requesting the change must show that circumstances have changed since the original court order. A common reason for modification of child support orders is a change of income. If the parent receiving child-support payments also receives public assistance, the local child support agency may ask a court to change existing child support orders.

Enforcement

A number of enforcement options are available to a parent who is not receiving the full amount of child support payments by the payment due date. Under the income withholding option, money is automatically withheld from the payor’s income source, such as an employment check, worker’s compensation or Social Security benefits. The parent may also ask the California Department of Child Support Services to seize funds from a financial institution in which the payor has a deposit account. If the payor’s refusal to pay child support is willful, the recipient parent may file a contempt action against the payor. A contempt action is a criminal proceeding that can result in jail time, community service and the posting of a bond. A contempt action may also result in the revocation of the payor’s professional license.