A Primer on California Child Support Guidelines
A parent’s monthly budget is one of the many areas that can get thrown for a loop when you go through a divorce proceeding and project out to when you’ll officially be a single parent. The costs of caring for the kids must be figured out in the settlement, and the question of how much child support you can get is asked.
California Statewide Child Support Guidelines
Our state has developed a calculator that attempts to bring some measure of uniformity to a process that must necessarily be different in each couple’s case. The calculator itself is highly complex, but it does provide insight into factors the court will consider when deciding on child support.
As you might expect, income is a big driving factor, as are the expenses associated with raising the child. Courts will also consider the amount of visitation time the paying parent has with the children. If you fight to reduce the amount of time your ex has with the kids, be aware that winning that kind of custody fight can come with a literal price tag–lower amounts in child support.
Child support and alimony are two very different things from a legal point of view. Alimony is meant to keep the spouses living a reasonably comparable lifestyle to what they enjoyed together, while child support focuses squarely on the expense of raising the kids. Alimony can continue for an extended period, whereas child support ends when the child turns 18.
So, strictly speaking, the amount of alimony you get should not impact the size of your child support payment. That's the official legal stance. In actual practice, alimony payments do reduce the amount of overall income your ex has and make it easier for you to meet the expenses that come with child raising. Hence, it’s at least possible that the amount of one could impact the size of the other.
How Income Is Determined in California
There are several possible sources of income under the child support guidelines. Salary is the obvious example. If your soon-to-be ex is someone who worked on commission, the court will look at what they can be reasonably expected to earn. The same goes for workplace bonuses–they aren’t guaranteed, but they can often be predicted with a reasonable level of accuracy. This enables the court to factor them into the final support payment plan.
What if you and your ex owned rental property together, and they’ll be keeping it after the divorce? The income generated from that property will be used in calculating child support obligations. The same goes for royalty income, something that might apply if your ex is a writer or musician.
Income received from pensions, a personal injury settlement or an annuity will be used to determine your ex’s support obligations. So will government benefits from disability to Social Security to unemployment compensation.
What happens when your spouse is unemployed, but highly likely to work again soon? The answer is that courts will impute income.
This is basically assessing how much the spouse is likely to be earning in the near future and using that figure for the support calculation. It sounds simple enough, but there are several factors to consider.
The first is the availability of jobs that would offer comparable compensation. Perhaps your spouse was the Chief Operating Office for a major research & development firm. A corporate buyout resulted in new ownership bringing in a fresh team. There’s no doubt that your spouse will be able to find another job, but will it be another COO position? Or even something that pays on the same level? If so, would they have to relocate, thus impacting the amount of time that’s available for visitation?
All of this has the effect of making an assessment of the current job market a big factor in the support calculation. If you believe your ex can make a comparable salary while staying in reasonable geographic distance to exercise visitation rights, then that case needs to be made in court with evidence.
What if your ex quit that COO job to take a lower paying position? Maybe they did it to reduce their workplace stress level. Or maybe you suspect they did it for the expressed purpose of lowering their child support obligation.
The legal system is on your side. Courts are not going to look kindly on attempts to manipulate the child support guidelines and may well go ahead and impute an income that’s at the C-Suite level. Even if your spouse’s motives in taking a lower salary are good ones, the court is unlikely to place the financial burden for that decision on your children.
Expenses that are connected to the children also play a role. For example, you, as the primary custodial parent, will be the one responsible for getting the kids to school, to extracurricular activities and anywhere else that is part of the day-to-day life of parenting. Your spouse will have to take on their fair share of those expenses.
Here is another case that underscores how every couple is different. Let’s say your ex will be living an hour's drive away. That’s close enough to make the every-other-weekend visits pretty easy and even for the soon-to-be ex to help out in a pinch. But it’s unlikely they’ll play any role in day-to-day parenting work. A parent who lives two streets away is in a different situation. They might be sleeping under a different roof, but they can easily take kids to school or to a friend’s house or wherever they need to be. These differences can be considered by the court in the final support payment plan.
The Burden of Proof
When the calculator has completed its mechanization and given the court a final number, that number is presumed correct. This is an important legal term. The number can still change, but the burden of proving why will rest on the parent requesting the modification. And one of the ways that the calculator’s number can be challenged is if the paying parent has an income that vastly exceeds the needs of the child.
Extraordinarily High Earners
The state guidelines use the term “extraordinarily high earners,” but don’t tell us a lot about the threshold for that status. In child support cases, the state’s calculator might use the income for an extraordinarily high earner and spit out a payment plan that’s wildly out of proportion with the actual needs of the child.
That brings us to this question–what are the actual needs of the child? In a rigid sense, one could say that the needs are food, clothing, and shelter. But the state of California takes a broader view. It’s presumed that the child can share in the lifestyle of the parent.
What does that mean in a practical sense? Let’s take the children of our hypothetical COO, whose considerable salary is augmented by regular bonuses, wise investments, and ownership of a nice rental property. They’re earning a significant income. Do their children have the right to attend an elite grade school or high school?
If you believe that’s where your children should attend, you can make a case to the court that the tuition costs constitute a valid reason to overturn the original child support plan–the one the court is presuming correct until proven otherwise. The court will at least consider the fact that the children have the right to share in the lifestyle of both parents. A top school might well fall under those guidelines for C-level executives here in the Los Angeles area.
Importance of the Original Agreement
The presumed correct guideline doesn’t stop after your child support plan is finalized with the rest of the divorce settlement. No one can predict what the years ahead will hold, for you or your ex. Either of your incomes can change and the expense needs of the children can change.
If that happens, you can petition the court to modify the child support payment to meet changing circumstances. Please be aware, though, that the original settlement will still be presumed correct, and the burden for proving it’s outdated will fall on you. That makes getting it right the first time all the more important.
At Trabolsi | Levy | Gabbard LLP, we have a talented team of divorce attorneys committed to fighting hard for you and working to secure a fair child support plan that you can live with for the long haul. We understand how the state’s calculator figures out the baseline number and we understand the nuances of where that number can be challenged. Call us today at (310) 455-8364 or reach out to us online. Let’s set up a consultation to talk about what you need, what your children need and how we can get this next phase of your life off on the right foot.