Q. How is child support calculated in California? I have heard about "Guideline Support" but am wondering what this means?
A. In 1993 California adopted a Statewide Uniform Guideline to come into compliance with a federal mandate. (Family Code section 4050). This followed wide variability of orders and a prior failed attempt to ensure predictability. Its effect was to greatly increase the monies available to children and to begin to end gender bias in assessing support.
Family Code section 4052 requires California court Commissioners to adhere to the uniform guidelines and to "depart from the guideline only in special circumstances...."
Family Code section 4053 lists principles to be followed by the Court in implementing the guidelines. This is a statute worth reviewing, and using to remind family court judges of what our State child support policy is. These include the directives that:
(1) A parent's first and principal obligation is to support their minor children "according to the parent's circumstances and station in life."
(2) Both parents are mutually responsible.
(3) The guideline must take into account each parent's actual income and the level of responsibility for the children.
(4) "Each parent should pay for the support of the children or according to his or her ability."
(5) The interests of children are the State's top priority.
(6) Children should share in the standard of living of both parents. Child support may therefore be appropriately used to increase the standard of living of the custodial household to improve the lives of the children.
(7) Disparities of living standards in both homes, particularly where both parents have high levels of responsibility for raising the children, should be minimized through the use of guideline child support orders.
(8) A parent having primary physical responsibility for the children (a term that is nowhere defined in the Family Code) is presumed to be contributing a significant portion of their available financial resources to the support of these children.
(9) The guideline is intended to encourage settlement between parents by creating predictability.
(10) The guideline is presumptively correct in all cases, and only in special circumstance should child support orders be less than guideline.
(11) Child support orders must reflect the greater standard of living and costs of living in California as opposed to other states.
California Family Code section 4055 sets forth the formula for assessing guideline support. Don't even bother to look at it, you will need to be a mathematician or logics teacher to understand or explain it. While gross income numbers (or imputed income) are used, the guideline tax effects this income so that net income is generally what is determinative - however, this complicates doing the math. The percentage of parent's income allocated to children is called the "K" factor, and this number moves depending upon how many children there are. It assumes, for instance, that 26% of the joint income of most families is spent on families with one child, and 60% where there are three children. Fortunately these calculations are done for us through computer programs. The most common are the Dissomaster and Xspouse. The Riverside County family court in Indio utilizes the Xspouse. The Xspouse is a spin off from the people who devised the Dissomaster, after they had a parting of the ways.
Child support always takes precedence over spousal support, or personal expenses. Relative timeshare between the parents is a major factor in using the formula - the higher the noncustodial parent's timeshare, the less they pay.
Unfortunately this means in practice that there is much legal wrestling between parents about timeshare that has nothing to do with the children's best interests but often everything to do with economic warfare. I write about this in separate articles detailing Collaborative Law processes where we attempt to refocus parents on best interests rather than legal rights (per the guideline formula, for instance) so that primary parent's (often mothers) will give up more custodial time and fathers will pay a little more for this time and then actually undertake using that time (as opposed to having it on paper in a court order, but generally ignoring the increased responsibilities).
Studies have shown that most children who are entitled to child support from their fathers never receive it. There are a number of reasons for this, which are described in an article I wrote for Mediate.com, which you can access by clicking the link, above.
The realities addressed in that article may or may not be of interest you. They do affect children and parents in very deep ways, nonetheless.
In any event, now that you have some background on this subject, I will endeavor to provide more detailed information on how the Xspouse and Dissomaster programs work in practice, very soon. In the meantime, please use our search engine at the upper right corner of any page on this site and you will find those articles when they are up.
Thurman W. Arnold, III