Child Support Calculations in California

When I first meet with a family law client, if the individual has children one of the initial questions is invariably what child support will be. To my client’s frustration, I am not able to answer that question because child support is calculated in a complex manner in California. In some states, child support is calculated in a straightforward manner, such s simply taking a percentage of income. In California, this is not the case.

California uses a software program to calculate child support (the California Department of Child Support Services has it here: Child support calculator. The program takes you and your co-parent’s gross income, the percentage time share that you spend with your children, certain deductions (mortgage interest, union dues, mandatory retirement payments, for example), then it calculates your taxes and determines the appropriate ‘guideline’ child support by using a complicated calculation that the California legislature adopted years ago. Once the inputs to the program are determined (or ordered by a judge), the number that the program shows for child support is mandatory for the judge to order unless BOTH parties agree to something different (which happens rarely). Even if both parties agree to a different amount, either party may come back at ANY TIME to modify the support to the guideline level.

In California, then, the critical part of negotiating child support is knowing how the input numbers can be modified or calculated to your advantage. For example, take the time share itself. If you calculate using days versus hours, you could come out with a very different result. Bonus or overtime income is also a tricky issue, as it’s not consistent. You have to be careful that it’s not overlooked in situations where, like in construction, some seasons have little or no overtime (and some have a great deal). If you’re calculating support on the outside of a ‘dry spell’ for overtime, then you could miss the upcoming overtime. If you don’t look back twelve months, similarly, you could in November overlook a substantial holiday bonus coming in December.

Finally, as a family law litigant you have to understand that the smallest change – often unknown until the day of your hearing – can make all the difference in the world for purposes of child support. You can plan and prepare as many printouts of the child support program as you can think of, but if you get to court and the payor has lost his job the day before, that will change the situation dramatically. It is extremely important, therefore, to have a qualified professional helping you to do the calculations so that you can maximize the potential benefit to you.