Child Support Calculations, Part I

Updated: Jul 23

When I first met my attorney, one of my first questions was to ask how much in child support I would owe. I told her a few details about my income, which was a lot more than Mom was making at the time. I took a blind guess that I would be paying her one to two thousand dollars a month in child support. I remember being very confused in that meeting when my attorney told me I would probably owe significantly more than that.


“But, babies don’t cost two thousand dollars a month?” you might be wondering like I was. True. But, the calculation is not based on what they cost. Child support calculations are primarily based on one parent’s income relative to the other parent’s income. Let me say that again, so it sinks in. What counts is your income, not what the child costs.


Before we go further, we must explain that every state has a different formula for child support calculation. Some states are “generous” to the parent with physical custody, and some are not. And some, like Maryland, change their laws from time to time. In the first few years of my daughter’s life, the Maryland state legislature changed their support calculations such that they went from being one of the stingiest states in the country to one of the most generous. Lucky timing for Mom; she got the amount revised higher soon after the laws changed.


Although most of the support calculations key off income, your expenses do factor in too. You will likely have to describe (and prove with documents) your recent expenses as well as your income. In Maryland, for example, Mom and I each had to fill out a lengthy expense sheet that showed what our typical bills were, such as rent, utilities, car payment, credit cards, etc. This was confusing to me because I did not understand the point in showing the court my expenses if all they cared about was my income. The answer was that they wanted to make sure I didn’t have any special needs like perhaps I was paying child support to another woman, or maybe my wife was in a wheelchair. Expensive daycare or a nanny could move the calculation a lot, probably. Certainly, they would want to know if our child had an expensive medical condition.


Anyway, you will probably have to disclose your income and your expenses over the past several years. The way it works is the judge/attorneys input the numbers into the state’s software program. The program spits out an amount that (typically) the visiting parent pays to the parent with physical custody each month. All the attorneys have access to this financial software in advance, so one thing you are paying them for is to calculate this child support number using their software.


If there is a single website that gives child support calculations for every state in the union, we cannot find it. The online calculators we have seen are usually inaccurate. I recently tried pugging in my numbers to one of these websites, and it gave me a completely incorrect result. My guess is that some states make the information easy to find, and others just don’t. There is probably no single source of reliable information for every state in the country.


My situation was relatively simple at the time of my custody battle. I had an income. Mom had none, and no one, including our child, had any extraordinary expenses like a medical condition or even a nanny. After a lot of trial and error with my lawyer, I pieced together a rule of thumb that told me my monthly child support payment in Maryland would be approximately 1% of my annual pre-tax income. Annualized, you could say I paid about 12% of my pre-tax income in child support.


So, for example, if I made about $100,000 a year before tax and Mom earned zero, then I would owe her about $1,000 a month ($12,000 a year) in child support. If I made $200,000 a year, I would owe her about $2,000 a month ($24,000 a year) in support. Importantly, child support income is tax-free to the parent receiving it. Since I was in a high-income tax bracket in a high tax location (Manhattan), it meant that I was paying out over 20% of my annual take-home pay (after-tax pay) in child support.


By contrast, Jessica was working when she and her son’s father had their child support numbers calculated by their attorneys. The difference with them is they were in Pennsylvania rather than Maryland, and they were both working, so the formula was slightly different than if one parent had zero income. We don’t know the exact numbers, but Jess believes both her and Dad were making about $50,000 annually at the time. Importantly, Jess had her son in daycare so she could work, and therefore Dad had to contribute a significant amount to that expense, which pushed up his total number owed to her. When it was all factored in, Dad ended up owning about $1,275 a month ($15,300 a year), which worked out to about 30% of his annual pretax income if it is true he was making about $50,000 at the time.


If you want another complication to consider, I will tell you that at one point, my daughter’s mother was planning to move out of Maryland. I asked my attorney what would happen to my child support calculation if Mom moved out of state. I was told no matter where she went, the new controlling jurisdiction would be New York State because I was staying put there. So, I talked to some family law attorneys in New York, and they told me that NY had a cap on child support of $5,000 a month, no matter how much money you made. Maryland had no such cap. However, while Maryland law said child support was to be paid until age 18, in New York, it was paid until age 21. The point is, make sure to understand if your state has a cap on payments and what age the payments end.


I don’t have any experience with 50/50 physical custody, but I’m sure that arrangement would lessen the payment further from the high-income spouse to the lower-income spouse. Obviously, if your child lives with you half the time, you have about half the expenses to shoulder, so there would be less reason to pay the lower-income parent as much.


Which begs the question I asked my attorney on day one, “But, babies don’t cost $2,000 a month?” True, they don’t. And your child’s expenses might be fully covered without you paying the custodial parent anything at all. But it’s not just about expenses. The fact is that in most states, the law is designed to partially equalize the living standards of both parents. The keyword is "partially."


Whereas alimony is meant to nearly equalize living standards after a divorce, child support payments from the high income to the low-income parent are intended only to balance it partially. Child support aims to make sure that the child doesn’t live in a slum with one parent on the weekdays and in a mansion with the other parent on the weekends. It could also be the other way around. Suppose the parent with physical custody is a celebrity making $100 million a year, and the visiting parent is a regular Joe. In that case, you can imagine the visiting parent might be the one getting paid child support in that case.


It’s enough to make your head spin, and it is all very confusing. The bottom line is that you will need your attorney to plug in the income and expense numbers into your state’s calculator and see what it says. In our experience, an estimate would be that the visiting parent pays something like 10-30% of their pretax income to the custodial parent. However, there are many moving parts, so don’t make any assumptions without talking to your attorney.


Check out our Useful Links if you need help finding a great lawyer, and be sure to read Child Support Calculations, Part II for more valuable information about this important topic.


- Jessica & Jim




Disclaimer

Jim and Jessica Braz are not lawyers. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give legal advice on this website. Furthermore, child custody laws, child support calculations, and family law, in general, vary from state to state. Be sure to consult an attorney in the appropriate state for your custody litigation. ​


Jim and Jessica Braz are not doctors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, they do not give medical advice on this website. Be sure to consult your doctor on your specific medical situation. ​


Jim and Jessica Braz are not licensed therapists, mediators, or counselors. While they have real-life experience in the issues discussed here, you should consult licensed professionals as needed.


The advice given on this website does not hold Jim and Jessica Braz legally liable for any adverse outcomes you may have from following their advice.

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