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The Basics of Child Support
"There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children."
      - Nelson Mandela

In our neighborhood in Connecticut we were surrounded by mostly old Yankee families with names like Cox, Voight, and Baldwin. But there we were, the family with the long Sicilian name no one could pronounce. We shared our Mediterranean heritage with one other family, the Defeo’s, down at the bottom of the hill. They had seven kids and were always the go-to house for fun.

As long as you stayed out of Mrs. Defeo’s way a good time could always be had. Despite the fear she could instill, each one of those kids got the support and attention they needed to become confident and successful adults. I write this article with Mrs. Defeo, and all caring parents, in mind.

Nothing creates more confusion and anxiety than the possibility of paying or receiving income in the form of spousal support (alimony) and child support. These money transfers can make or break the financial life of either spouse if they are not implemented fairly in a divorce settlement.

In this article we explore child support; how it works, the various formulas in use around the country, and what you need to know going into your negotiations.

Child Support Basics

The family court system of your state has, above all else, a responsibility to make sure the children of divorcing couples do not suffer needless financial and emotional harm. Therefore child support payments from one parent to the other, or some other way of ensuring the children’s financial needs are met, are required for a settlement to be approved.

This is not to say that all settlements must have child support payments. If children spend equal time with each parent, and if the parents’ incomes are nearly identical, the court could approve a settlement without child support payments. But this is more the exception than the rule.

Some Criticisms

Child support formulas are all flawed in some way. For example, virtually every state requires one parent to pay the other rather than paying for children’s expenses out of a jointly funded account. And in all states one parent must be designated as the custodial parent even where time is split evenly between households.

Despite these flaws, state courts are obligated under federal law to have statutes and processes that protect the needs of children. So they stick with their chosen formula as a way to create consistency, protect children, and give parents the opportunity to use the court to advocate for changes to their child support obligations. It is an imperfect system but a necessary one.

Child Support Models

You need to consult your state’s child support guidelines. But you will find that each state subscribes to one of three approaches to calculating child support.

The Income Shares Model is the most popular approach in use today, with 37 states employing it. It is based on the concept that the child should receive the same proportion of parental income that he or she would have received if the parents lived together. It allocates an amount of support for the child using a percentage formula based on the parents’ pooled or combined income.

The philosophy behind it is that the parents’ income after divorce should still be looked at as one income pool and spent for the benefit of all household members, including any children.

The Melson Formula builds on the concept of the Income Shares Model but takes it a step closer towards economic reality by first deducting the parents’ basic living expenses from each of their respective incomes.

It is considered by advocates to be a fairer way to determine child support. It is only in use in Delaware, Hawaii, and Montana.

The Percentage of Income Model sets support as a percentage of only the noncustodial parent's income; the custodial parent's income is not considered.

This model has two variations: the Flat Percentage Model, where a fixed percentage of income is paid regardless of the amount of income earned, and the Varying Percentage Model, which reduces the percentage set aside for child support payments as income increases. It is in use by ten states today.

6 Things You Need to Know About Child Support

Child support guidelines are highly variable state-to-state, but here are some general rules:

  • Child support is considered more important than spousal support (alimony) in the eyes of the courts. The children’s welfare comes first … spouse’s second.
  • Child support payments vary state-by-state. You need to look at the formula your state uses. Every state has an online calculator to determine what is likely to be paid.
  • Under the Income Shares Model, the relative income of each parent and which parent is designated as the custodial parent are the major factors in calculating child support. But other factors may be considered, such as:
    • Whether there are existing child support obligations from a previous marriage
    • Which parent is paying for health insurance and day care costs
    • Extraordinary medical costs for the parent or child
    • Additional nights spent at the non-custodial parent’s home, i.e., parenting credit.
  • What one considers “income” varies greatly by state. It could be gross income, net income, imputed income, or some other form. Bonuses and investment income may or may not be considered.
  • Child support may be raised upward or downward from the state guidelines based on any number of factors such as special needs of the children, other expenses being picked up by the paying parent (like private school), and whether the calculated payment is much more than is needed.
  • Child support eventually ends, typically at the age of majority which is age 18 in most states. Some states allow payments to continue if the child is attending college. Check your state’s guidelines and statutes to see if this applies to you.

Child support guidelines vary greatly by state. You should consult with an attorney to discuss how the courts are likely to view and calculate the payment of child support based on your unique circumstances.

This article is excerpted from “The Financially Smart Divorce”


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Rhode Island is an equitable division state; courts divide property equitably. This does not mean equally but fairly. The court considers several factors if the parties have not agreed beforehand on distribution, including the duration of the marriage, each spouse's contribution to acquiring and maintaining the property, the best interests of the children if applicable, contribution of one spouse to the earning capacity of the other, and income, among other things.
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