As much as I’ve written about child support over the years, I think there are still a lot of things that people don’t understand about how it works.
Custodial arrangements – or parenting plans – vary dramatically these days, and though it’s true to say that more parents share custody than have primary physical custody, there are also situations where one parent or the other (whether rightly or wrongly, I’m not here to criticize) has the lion’s share of the parenting time.
That doesn’t have anything to do, of course, with how much money either side necessarily has coming in. Or maybe it does, because, after all, having access to extra money (especially compared to the money that the child’s other parent might have access to) means that you’re in a more advantageous position when it comes to extended litigation. Put simply, the parent who earns more can afford to fight custody, which may have benefits.
Though we’re used to thinking of moms having more custody than dads – and, in many cases even where custody is shared 50/50, its often still true that moms do more of the work of parenting – that’s not always the case. The law these days doesn’t favor any kind of custodial arrangement, but merely has to consider all kids – shared, primary, and split physical custody – equally.
How is child support calculated?
In Virginia, child support is calculated based on a formula. There are a number of relevant factors – the number of children, the incomes of both parties, the amount paid for work related child care, support for other children from previous relationships, the cost of healthcare premiums for the children, and the amount of time each parent has with the child – that goes into a child support calculation.
Basically, when I run a child support calculation, I fill in all the blanks – and what pops out is how the ‘basic’ obligation a child is owed under the law (more on this in a minute) is going to be shared between the parties.
What’s the basic child support obligation?
By statute – meaning, by a law that’s codified by statute and is binding in all cases where child support is awarded, unless a judge awards a deviation – there’s a specific amount of child support that is deemed necessary to support a kid. In the statute, there’s a table. Depending on how much you earn, combined, and how many kids you have, it determines how much support is ‘necessary’ to maintain the child or children in question.
The code section in question is § (this little squiggly means ‘section’) 20-108.2. You can see it here: https://law.lis.virginia.gov/vacode/title20/chapter6/section20-108.2/
Let’s take an example, and say that you earn $5000 a month combined. You move down the table until you find $5000 as your combined monthly income, and scroll across to the number of children you have in common – for one child, the guideline child support is $755, for two its $1136, and so on. Now, that’s not how much the noncustodial parent (the parent who has the child less) pays the custodial parent. No – that’s the total overall obligation.
So, what does that mean? Basically, that number is divided between you. You BOTH have a legal obligation to support the child, and you share responsibility for that obligation depending on your percentage of income shares, how you divide who pays for work related child care, who covers the health insurance premiums, and how much time you each have with the children. So, you’ll both be responsible for making up that number – though only one of you is legally on the hook for paying the other.
Who can file for child support? The custodial or non custodial parent?
Either of you can file! But, like I said, child support is determined by formula – so just because you filed (whether you’re the custodial or non custodial parent) doesn’t mean you’ll get more, or even that you won’t end up paying.
The numbers just go into the formula.
Keep in mind that, just like custody and visitation, child support is modifiable based on a material change in circumstances.
Is it possible that no child support would be awarded?
Yes, it’s possible! Especially if you share custody and you earn very similar incomes! It can happen, too, even in a primary physical custody scenario, and even if the incomes are different – depending on how you share parenting time.
Is it possible that the non custodial parent would receive child support?
It’s all super complicated, right? It’s not necessarily a scenario where dad earns a million dollars a month and has 100% of the parenting time, while mom earns nothing and has no time with the kids– and, in most cases, a statutory minimum of child support would be payable, or even $0 in support would be awarded.
But child support can be shared in a million different ways, so it may not be an obvious ‘custodial’ versus ‘non custodial’ parent. A parent with less parenting time COULD receive child support, depending on the income shares. And, of course, income shares can be all over the place, too! Just know that it is – theoretically at least – possible.
I imagine this is most likely in a case where there’s shared custody but a huge disparity in income; it’s less possible in a primary physical custody situation because then the non custodial parent really is virtually non custodial, meaning that she (I say she, because we only represent women) wouldn’t have much, if any, time with the kids. Child support is designed to offset the amount of money that parent spends while the child is in their care for their basic maintenance and support. If there’s not much, if any, time in the parent’s care, their child support need is negligible.
But, in a shared custody situation where one party earns way, way more than the other, the lesser custodial parent might receive support. Is it common? Gosh, no. But is it possible? Yes.
Also, the amount that the lesser earning parent receives in spousal support, if any is awarded, would be considered as well – so that further disrupts the numbers.
It’s also equally possible that the parent with less parenting time might be the one filing, depending – again – on parenting time and income shares. It may even be that someone files in order to lessen the amount they’re paying, but not necessarily because they expect to be paid.
It’s complicated. It’s highly dependent on specific circumstances. But, like in life, almost anything is possible.
How much support will I receive?
The good news is that there’s nothing mystical or magical about this. It’s established by formula; it’s in the statute. It’s all there.
It’s a good idea to meet with an attorney who can run the guidelines for you – as far as I know, there aren’t any reliable calculators online, though honestly I’ve hardly looked – so that you know whether or not its worth while to file.
In a divorce, we take care of support – both child and spousal – but if you either aren’t married to your child’s father or if you need a modification to a previous agreement or order, you can meet with an attorney to discuss your options. You can always file yourself, too, but it’s a good idea to at least run the guidelines before you do. You wouldn’t want to find out that you’d owe, or owe more, because you didn’t do your homework ahead of time!
It’s good to ask questions and its important to understand. I’m sure it’s surreal, in a million ways, to have so much law overseeing even simple aspects of your life, post divorce (or post break up). But it’s good, too, in the sense that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I don’t think child support is known for being particularly generous, but it is established.