How does going back to work impact the child support I receive?

Posted on Feb 8, 2021 by Katie Carter

There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the child support guidelines. Though I often hear from women that they don’t know how they’re going to support themselves post separation and, ultimately, post divorce, I don’t think there’s a lot of really robust conversation surrounding that topic, which can make it hard for women to know how to ask the questions they need to ask to make the decisions they need to make.

Not only that, but decisions about costs and budgeting are different when you’re one nuclear family, versus when you separate into two different households.

For married, single family households, I often hear a common refrain:

It’s not worth me working if what I earn barely covers the costs of daycare.

Maybe that’s true – in that situation. But when you and your children’s father separate, and you’re now attempting to support your own household, does the same still hold true? Is it REALLY not worth you working, even if what you earn barely covers the cost of daycare?

To answer this question, the only thing we can do is turn to the child support guidelines. A lot of women want me to run guidelines, but they don’t ask me about a lot of different scenarios, and how that will impact their support. A lot of women seem to assume that whatever income they earn will decrease their child support dramatically.

It doesn’t exactly work that way. Whatever you earn doesn’t necessarily result in a dollar for dollar reduction in the child support you receive.

Why? Well, there are a couple of reasons. It’s a little confusing, if you’re unused to thinking about it – so stick with me.

The child support calculations use your COMBINED INCOME – that is, yours and your child’s fathers, added together – to generate a support figure. The two of you share responsibility for that figure PRO RATA (or, proportionally, based on your incomes).

The end result of this is that your combined income will cause the support guideline to increase. So, though you may now earn 20% of the total combined income, where you didn’t earn any (or earned less) of it before, that doesn’t necessarily mean that his total overall support will go down.

In fact, in many calculations I’ve seen, it goes UP!

Let’s look at an example, okay?

So, let’s say he earns $100,000 a year. You earn $0. You have two children, but no child care expenses (you stay at home), and he pays health insurance coverage for the children in the amount of $100 per month. Under a primary physical custody guideline, that gives you $1,440 per month in child support.

But let’s say you go back to work. You earn $20,000 a year. On it’s own, that takes your child support down to $1,289 per month. But you also have the $1667 per month that you’re earning now as a working woman. So, combined, overall, each month, you have $2955 to live off of – and that’s not even counting the spousal support you might also receive!

Let’s say you earn $50,000 a year. Guideline child support (again, primary physical custody) is still $1,182 per month! It’s like $240 less than what you would have had when you earned NOTHING per month, only now you’re also getting $4,166 per month from your job – a total to you of $5348 per month. It’s much more livable.

It doesn’t go down as much as you’d think – even though, especially in the second example, you’re earning way, way more – because you’re sharing a portion of a larger pie. Since your COMBINED incomes are what matter, you are now responsible for a portion (as opposed to him being responsible for 100% of the support guideline when you earned nothing), but the pie is bigger. So, as you can see, not a dollar for dollar reduction at all.

But, wait – didn’t I say that his child support obligation might go up? Well, you should also notice that, in these examples, I didn’t account for childcare. Now, you may or may not have childcare expenses. Your kids could all be school aged. Or your mom might be willing to watch them for you while you work. Whatever the case may be, it’s entirely possible that your situation wouldn’t include childcare. But, if it does, you’ll have to remember that he’ll be responsible for a portion of that, too.

Let’s run the same calculation again. With you earning $0, you wouldn’t be able to factor childcare in; according to the guidelines, its supposed to be work related childcare. But let’s say that, whether you earn $20k, as in the first example, or $50k (and I’ll run it both ways, so you can see), you have $1,000 per month in childcare costs, paid by you.

If you earn $20k per month, with $1000 per month in childcare (which, as you may notice, is $1667 per month before taxes, so BARELY enough to cover childcare on its own), the child support guideline is $2,122. (Remember, before, without childcare, he was paying just $1,289 – so this is a net increase TO HIM of $833!) It’s a net increase to you, too – you have the $1667 you earn each month, plus the child support of $2,122. Subtracting the cost of childcare, that’s still $2789 to you each month – a significant increase from the $1,289 you got with just child support being factored in! It’s $1,500 a month MORE!

If you earn $50k per month, with the $1000 per month in childcare, child support goes up to $1849. (Remember, without childcare, he was just paying $1,182 before – a net increase to him of $667 per month, even though nothing else on his end has changed.)

With childcare added in to the calculation, you are responsible for your own pro rata portion of that cost – but SO IS HE. So, in a situation where you’re maintaining two separate households, its often more beneficial for you to work, even if what you actually earn each month is barely enough to cover the cost of daycare.

As you can see, it’s not a dollar for dollar reduction, either. And the end result is in you having more money to live off of each month.
Look, I’m a modern woman, too. Although I work (and have two children of my own), I wouldn’t tell any woman who was completely closed off to the idea of re-entering the workforce that she had to. I’m only here, illustrating options, so that you can make the best choice for you under the circumstances. Whether that includes going back to work or not, it’s a decision that you should make with all the relevant information available to you.

Additionally, I think it’s important that you have ammunition to clap back against any husband or child’s father who suggests that because you don’t work, you’re leeching off of him. That’s simply not true, as these calculations show. In a case with no childcare, his costs might go down a teensy bit – but it’s not dramatic. In a case with childcare, though? It’s entirely possible he’ll pay more, perhaps even SIGNIFICANTLY more. So, although there’s a net cost to you that comes from not working, your not working is likely not hurting him at all.

I can’t go back to work, if what I earn is barely enough to cover childcare!

The first attitude, I think, is understandable – and it’s very consistent with general attitudes I see about women in the workplace. Especially now, with the pandemic running rampant through the country, and women being laid off left, right, and center, and the costs of childcare (when you can even find it!) being so high that it’s hard for many people to afford.

My child’s mother is unemployed, which means I have to pay more in child support than I should! She’s lazy and horrible, and I won’t stop until I burn all of Virginia’s courts to the ground so fathers get what they deserve!

I may be embellishing here (or am I? It was a truly hateful post) but this is an attitude I’ve also seen, time and time again. On Monday, I began the process of debunking that attitude and, hopefully, adding in some handy dandy ammunition for you to use, in the event your child’s father shares this nasty mindset.

On Monday, I talked about how child support guidelines are affected when a mom goes back to work in a primary physical custody scenario. As we discussed, her earning a new income does not mean a dollar for dollar reduction in the amount of support she receives; in every circumstance, she had more take home money each month with a job than she did without, whether or not she paid childcare each month. (And, in situations where there was childcare, dad paid MORE in child support each month – even though mom was now earning an income!)

But how is child support impacted in a case where the parties have SHARED physical custody – meaning that the non-custodial parent has 90 or more days in a calendar year?

We see more and more shared physical custody all the time, so it is important to look at how the different kinds of custody and allocations of parenting time impact child support. Child support in Virginia is established by a guideline figure so it’s not something that we litigate on its own – but, to the extent that custody impacts child support, that does sometimes result in litigation.

In shared physical custody, child support is on a sliding scale – the more time the non custodial parent has, the less support he pays.
Let’s look at some examples, using the same numbers we used from our article on Monday.

We’re going to take a two child family, and a dad who earns $100,000 annually. Mom earns nothing, but the parties have shared custody. Dad has 90 days, and pays $100 per month in health care. Child support is $1520 per month.

Now, take the same figures, except that the parties split parenting time equally, with each parent having 182.5 days. Child support is $1011 per month.

What happens under the shared custody guidelines when mom gets a job? How does it impact her income each month? How does it impact how much child support dad pays overall?

90 Days of Parenting Time Shared Custody Calculation, With and Without Childcare

Let’s keep the numbers the same – two kids, dad earns $100,000, and pays $100 a month for the kid’s healthcare. Now, mom earns $20,000. Dad has 90 days of parenting time. Child support is $1270. So, as you can see, her child support goes down $250 per month, but she also has the extra income from the job — $1667 per month, for a total monthly benefit to her of $2937.

But what if she needs childcare? Going back to work, especially if you have young children or you’re a military family without friends or family nearby, often means that you need at least some childcare. Let’s assume that there’s $1,000 per month in childcare expenses, but all the rest is the same – as you can see, with $1667 per month in come (before taxes!) this mom’s income barely covers childcare.

Under the shared custody calculation, with dad having 90 days of parenting time, this gives her $2104 per month in child support.
As far as net benefit to mom, she’s now being pay $1667 per month to work, she gets $2104 per month in child support, and just subtracts the $1000 per month in child care – for a total of $2771 per month. How does that impact dad? Well, as you can see, he pays $2104 now, compared with $1270 without child care costs – and $1520 when she wasn’t working at all! That’s up $834 per month with childcare, and up $584 compared to WHEN MOM WASN’T WORKING AT ALL!

182.5 Days of Parenting Time Shared Custody Calculation, With and Without Childcare

Okay, okay – it’s a sliding scale, right? So, if dad has more time, he’ll pay less in support. Right? Right. So, let’s crunch the same numbers, and the only thing we’ll change is the parenting time.

We already saw that when mom doesn’t work, dad pays $1011 per month when they split the parenting time 50/50, with 182.5 days per year in parenting time each.

But when mom goes back to work and she earns $20k annually, child support goes down to $718. So, $718 plus the $1667 she earns at her new job is more overall per month – though dad’s portion of that goes down slightly.

When mom goes back to work and earns $20k, and incurs $1,000 per month in work related childcare, what happens then? When I run those guidelines, I get a child support amount of $1551. That’s a pretty significant increase for dad, right? Compared with paying just $1,011 per month when mom didn’t work at all.

The point of running these numbers isn’t to find out how to make your child’s father pay the most. But it IS to educate yourself, and to encourage you to crunch YOUR numbers, so that you know what could be if the facts were a little different.

If you’re making the decision to go back to work – or not – you should do so in full knowledge of what that decision might cost you, both in terms of what the child support could be and also in terms of what you could earn, independently from your child’s father, every single month. (And that’s not even counting the significant benefit of earning your own health insurance, 401(k), and other benefits through your own employer!)

It gets complicated. There are a lot of variables. In this article, I only compared the situation where mom earns $20k. When you introduce the shared custody variable, the number of days of parenting time that each parent has affects the support guideline a lot; we’re no longer looking at just the income of the parties or whether or not they have childcare. So, I’ve run fewer calculations here than in my article on Monday (because, under primary physical custody, there’s fewer moving pieces), but I hope you see that the point of this is really the illustration of the impact of the division of days.

None of this is to suggest that these numbers accurately reflect your unique reality, but just to encourage you to ask questions, crunch numbers, and, ultimately, make the decisions that give the most benefit to you and your children each month. Divorce is expensive. Custody cases are expensive. LIFE is expensive. And you’ll need to have the income you need to meet its various demands, both now and in the future.

Get a job, don’t get a job – whatever. But get the information, and make good decisions that take into account the real financial needs you and your children will have, now and after your divorce is finalized.

For more information, request a copy of our custody book, get more information about an upcoming custody seminar, or give our office a call at 757-425-5200. We’d be happy to run some child support guidelines for you!