Protecting Your Future

To Pay or Not To Pay: How Does Child Support Work?

On Behalf of | Apr 7, 2021 | Firm News |

“See, well then they start talkin’ ’bout child support

Alimony and the cost o’ the Court

It didn’t take me long to figure out

How fond of attorneys I was.”

Jerry Reed, “She Got The Goldmine (I Got The Shaft)”


California courts define child support “as the amount of money that a court orders a parent or both parents to pay every month to help pay for the support of the child (or children) and the child’s living expenses.”  During a divorce – or paternity case – this issue can quickly become a source of stress, contention, and even a weapon to be used against the other parent.

What is Guideline Child Support?

Family courts follow the “guideline child support” rules when making support orders. Family Code section 4053(j) explains that the guideline seeks to encourage fair and efficient settlements of conflicts between parents and seeks to minimize the need for litigation. Section 4053(l) provides that support orders must ensure that children actually receive fair, timely, and sufficient support reflecting the California’s high standard of living and high costs of raising children compared to other states.

So what is guideline child support? It is a mathematical formula that is outlined in Family Code section 4055. Basically, guideline child support is based on a formula which takes into account the number of kids, and each party’s custodial time and income, among other factors, (including but not limited to, tax exemptions, union dues, health insurance, mandatory retirement), and the formula generates a monthly amount to be paid for each individual child.

So What is “Income”?

Family Code section 4058 (a) states that “income” comes from whatever source, including but not limited to:

(1) commissions, salaries, royalties, wages, bonuses, rents, dividends, pensions, interest, trust income, annuities, workers’ compensation benefits, unemployment insurance benefits, disability insurance benefits, social security benefits, and spousal support actually received from a different relationship,

(2) income from the proprietorship of a business,

(3) employee benefits or self-employment benefits, and may even

(b) consider the earning capacity of a parent in lieu of the parent’s income, consistent with the best interests of the children, taking into consideration the overall welfare and developmental needs of the children, and the time that parent spends with the children.

What is not considered income?

Family Code section 4058(c) Annual gross income does not include any income derived from child support payments actually received, and income derived from any public assistance program, eligibility for which is based on a determination of need.

Also, child support received by a party for children from another relationship is not included as part of that party’s gross or net income.

How is Child Support Calculated?

Child support is calculated with a computer program called “Dissomaster”. The numbers are plugged into the program and the monthly amount of guideline support is produced.

Who Pays Child Support?

Both parents are obligated to support their children.  This is built into the law:  Family Code section 4053(a) states that “A parent’s first and principal obligation is to support his or her minor children according to the parent’s circumstances and station in life.” Family Code section 4052.5 allows for guideline support for kids with more than 2 parents.

This might help explain how custody issues and support issues work together: Generally, the more custodial time a parent has, the more support the custodial parent can get, and/or the less the paying parent will be obligated to pay.  The very nature of this issue lends itself to people trying to manipulate the system to either get more money than they would be entitled to, or to pay less than they should be – for example, working less hours, earning less money, seeking more custody, alienating the other parent to keep more custody.

The parties can also stipulate (agree to) the guideline amount of child support, without needing a court order or court involvement. If the parties cannot agree, a court order is needed, and a “wage garnishment” can be obtained to have the payments taken directly out of the paying parent’s paychecks. You can seek child support orders in either family court or through the County Child Support Services Division.

Back Pay

            What happens when you fall behind on your child support payments? Basically – nothing good! Child support is owed until it is paid. There is no statute of limitations on back child support. Child support arrears can follow you for years, even decades. The arrears accrue with interest, and if the County is involved in collections, they have resources available to collect those payments – the County can garnish up to 50% of your paycheck, levy your bank accounts, place a lien on property, freeze your accounts, intercept tax refunds, suspend your driver’s license, and suspend your passport.

How long does child support last?

Family Code section 3901 provides that child support is owed until the child completes the 12th grade, or turns 19, whichever occurs first.

Remember – the right of child support belongs to the child, not the parent. It is not waivable – you cannot bargain it away in exchange for other things, such as custody. It is owed no matter what is going on in your life.

Modifying Child Support

Family Code section 3651 provides that a child support order can be modified or terminated at any time as the court determines to be necessary.

Since the court holds jurisdiction over your child until he or she turns 18, the court anticipates changes as the child ages. Their needs will change and grow as they do, so either party can ask the court to change the support order with good cause. If your life circumstances change such that you are unable to meet the child support amount, you must notify the court immediately by filing a motion. You can ask for retroactivity to the date of the filing of the motion (Family Code section 3653).

Child support orders stay alive unless they are modified or terminated by another court order, so you must make the court aware of any changes, such as a reduction of wages, being laid off or fired, or disability or medical conditions, etc. Be diligent regarding your obligations, and if need be, let the court know what’s going on, so you don’t end up paying for it later.