Reasons to Deviate From California Guidelines for Child Support

By Wayne Thomas

Divorce does not relieve either parent of the obligation to financially support their children. In California, state guidelines are used to calculate a support amount according to the incomes of both parents. However, in some cases, the amount that a parent is ordered to pay is found to be inappropriately high or low. Courts have the discretion to deviate from the support formula in limited circumstances when this happens.

Income Shares Model

California uses what is known as the income shares model when calculating child support. This model tries to provide the children with the same level of support they would have enjoyed if their parents were still living together. First, both parties' net incomes are combined. This number then corresponds to a total child support obligation based on a formula provided by state law. The parent ordered to pay support -- generally the one who has fewer overnights with the child -- is then responsible for paying an amount equal in proportion to his contribution to the parents' total combined income. For example, if the parent ordered to pay support contributes $50,000 to a combined household income of $75,000, that parent must pay two-thirds of the support amount generated by the formula.

High Incomes

By law, judges in California are required to presume that the support obligation produced by the guidelines is correct. A parent who wishes to deviate from this guidelines amount must convince the court that using the formula resulted in an unjust outcome, and why. The court is permitted to reduce an obligation if the obligor parent has an extraordinarily high income, because this could result in a guidelines amount that exceeds the child's needs.

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Unique Circumstances

California's statutes outline additional reasons a judge might deviate from a child support amount determined by the guidelines. For example, if the cost of a child's medical or other needs are extraordinarily high, such as because the child has a permanent disability, an upward deviation might be appropriate. Another example would be if parents have an equal number of overnights with the child, but one parent is contributing less support on the nights he has custody. A support order is not unjust simply because it requires that a parent pay an amount higher than expected.


Parents can also agree to a different amount of child support by agreement. Decreasing the amount from what the guidelines arrive at is allowed only in very limited circumstances. The court must establish that both parents are fully informed regarding their right to receive child support, and that neither parent is being coerced into the agreement. Neither parent can receive public assistance or be in the process of applying for assistance. The court must ensure that the reduced amount adequately meets the needs of the child, and that it is in the child's best interest.

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