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Child Support Guidelines
Mathematics is written for mathematicians.
- Nicolaus Copernicus

How do courts calculate child support in California? The overriding principle is that the support be in the children’s best interest, while a key component is a guideline which is determined by a somewhat complicated formula.

Although we won’t be explaining the math of the calculations, which can be daunting to understand, let’s look at the “input” that goes into the formula. Obviously, if you can change the data that goes “in” you affect the result that comes “out.” This provides attorneys (and judges) with plenty of work to do.

The components are:

  • the gross income of the parents;
  • certain deductions that may be allowed from gross income;
  • the number of children; and
  • the percentage of custody each parent has.

In this month’s article we look only at one component – gross income. Gross income includes common sources such as earnings, rents, investments, pensions, trust income, annuities, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, disability insurance, Social Security, and spousal support from a previous marriage. It also includes business income and may include the value of employee benefits. (Practice Under the California Family Code 2012).

In addition to income actually received, the court may consider a person’s earning capacity (what the person has the ability and opportunity to earn). This was the subject of a recent appellate court decision (Ficke). The trial court imputed $13,333 a month to Wife as income although she was only earning $251 a month in a start-up business. She had turned down a job at $125,000/year and had a history of earning upwards of $200,000. She chose to spend more time with her children (now teenagers) instead of high earning jobs that took her away from home. The appellate court found, among other factors, that the children benefitted by her being home and thus, although she might earn big dollars, the children were best served by her having work where she could be available.

The point is that the best interests of the children must be factored in when determining child support. It could be a better place to live or more time with parents. It isn’t always the math that counts.

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Generally, debts incurred during the marriage are community obligations. This includes credit card bills, even if the credit card is in one name only. Student loans are an important exception because they are considered separate property debts. Community property possessions and community property debts are divided equally unless both spouses agree to an unequal division in writing. If spouses can't agree on the division of debts and possessions, a judge makes that decision.
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