How is child support calculated?

Child support is calculated by determining a parent's gross annual income and subtracting deductions. 

In most cases, the Court Commissioner or Family Law Judge has final authority over the amount of child support to be paid and who will be held responsible for making those payments. 

The court will determine the amount of child support by using guidelines established by the California Family Code (sections 4050 and thereafter). First, the court must determine the parent’s “net disposable income,” which is calculated by subtracting certain deductions from the parent’s gross annual income. Each parent will complete an “Income and Expense Declaration” and provide proof of income. “Gross annual income” includes the parent’s income from all sources such as salary and wages, bonuses, commissions, rental income, dividends, interest, pensions, annuities, royalties, trust income, disability insurance benefits, workers compensation benefits, unemployment insurance benefits, social security benefits, and spousal support received from a person who is not the other parent of the child in the child support case. Calculation of gross annual income does not include need-based public assistance, such as CalWORKS, General Assistance, or Supplemental Security Income) or child support that a parent actual receives. “Deductions” are expenses that the court will subtract from gross annual income, such as state and federal tax obligations, mandatory union dues, required job-related expenses, health insurance premiums, and “hardships” such as extraordinary health expenses, uninsured catastrophic loss, and basic living expenses such as children from other relationships (see California Family Code section 4075.5). However, the court is not required to strictly adhere to the calculation and has discretion to adjust the amount of the child support based on various factors. Generally, up to 50% of the parent’s net disposable income can be taken for child support – in special cases, it can be up to 65%. The result is divided by 12 to determine the amount of child support the parent must pay on a monthly basis. 

Sometimes a parent will try to avoid paying child support by choosing to become unemployed or underemployed. As a result, courts will sometimes “impute” income to that parent. This means that the court will look at the earning ability of the parent and use the amount of income he or she could have earned, instead of their actual income, to determine the amount of child support. However, the court would need to first make a finding that 1) the parent does have the ability to work, and 2) the opportunity to work. That is, the court will need evidence that the jobs are indeed available for which the parent is qualified.

Additionally, health insurance must be included in any child support order if the parent paying support has group health insurance coverage available through work (see California Family Code sections 3750 through 3752).