The California child support guidelines are only a starting point for negotiations.
Federal law requires all 50 states to have a mechanized way by which to calculate child support. So every state has a child support guideline and the formulas vary from state to state.
Some states use a simple percentage-based formula. You’d simply take a share of the supporting party’s income and pay it to the other party and you’re done.
But not in California.
Determining child support in California is a very complex undertaking.
California uses something called the Income Shares Model.
The income shares model attempts to take into account a number of factors including:
Your net incomes;
The age(s) of your child(ren);
The number of overnights the children spends with each spouse;
Who takes them as a tax deduction;
How much each of you voluntarily contributes to your 401(k) or other retirement plans;
You and your children’s health insurance costs;
The amount of mortgage interest and property taxes you each pay; and
Any mandatory retirement contributions; and
Any mandatory union dues.
There are also a number of other “add-ons” which may be considered a factor such as:
The total cost of child care; and
Educational costs for the children; and
Any special needs your child may have that require additional funding; and
Any visitation-related travel expenses were one of you to live a great distance from the other; and
Any out-of-pocket medical expenses such as deductibles, co-pays, or other non-covered expenses.
Starting to see why this is so complicated?
Now assuming you’ve got all of that, and can enter all this data into the California child support calculator, the output may or may not accurately represent what is truly required to raise your kids!
You see in California, just like everywhere else in the United States, the amount outputted by the guideline is an estimation of what it costs to raise your children. And it can be deviated from if in your case, you and your spouse choose to do so.
Plus, many of the so-called “factors” mentioned above are difficult to agree on.
For example, according to the list above, the amount of mortgage interest and property taxes you each pay is a factor.
So does that mean you might have to decide how to divide your community property (i.e. your assets and liabilities) to understand which one of you might be staying in the house and incurring those mortgage interest and real estate tax expenses before you determine child support?
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
And, what is an appropriate amount to voluntarily contribute to your 401(k) or other retirement vehicles? It’s been my experience since two households are more expensive to run than one and California is a very expensive state to live in, that 401(k) contributions are usually the first things to get cut post-divorce.
The money that used to go towards retirement is now needed by divorcing couples to simply get by on a day-to-day basis, even if it means potentially delaying your retirement and reducing your savings.
And don’t forget - this guideline was developed by the State of California.
But the State of California doesn’t know the exact amount required to ensure your kids are properly supported so they’ll thrive.
Only you know what it actually costs to raise your kids!
So while you might think you simply run the guideline and use the number calculated, it’s not even close. The reality is, the number isn’t a hard and fast formula, but rather, a suggestion.
And it’s just a starting point for negotiation.
From there, it’s up to you and your spouse to negotiate an agreement that’s in the best interests of your children and that you both find fair.
Which is not so easy to do.
Especially if one of you lives in a high cost-of-living area such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego!
What really belongs in the California Child Support Guidelines?
So far, you've learned the child support guidelines attempt to provide divorcing parents with an estimate of the minimum payment amount of financial support needed to raise their kids.
And then it allocates a portion of that amount to each spouse based on a number of factors.
But even when you run the guideline, there will likely be controversy regarding which expenses should be included and how to handle those that aren’t.
As parents, I'm sure you would agree that you have to provide at least a basic level of support to your children. Food in their bellies, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs.
But after that, what’s in and what’s out is often the subject of much debate.
First is the issue with the California child support guideline itself.
Previously, we talked about how childcare was one of the factors in the child support guideline.
But should it really be included?
Let’s say, for example, you and your spouse have a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old. And both of you are currently working full-time outside the marital home. In this case, yes, including your daycare expenses in your child support award makes sense.
Now a few years go by, and your children are now 8 and 6.
Jacob, the 8-year-old is playing soccer and you have a friend who brings him back to their house after practice every day so you don’t need to pay for aftercare.
And Emily is enrolled in gymnastics which lasts until 5 pm when you get off of work. So again, no need to pay for daycare or aftercare.
But back when you got divorced, your child support award included funds for daycare.
So in theory, the child support amount is too high. So now you have to open old wounds and attempt to renegotiate the amount.
Then, there’s the matter of the items that were not covered in any California child support guideline calculation.
Prom dresses and tuxes;
Laptops and smartphones;
And the list goes on and on…
We commonly refer to these as "extraordinary" expenses and they are not typically included in the basic child support amount.
These items must be discussed and negotiated separately to ensure your children get the financial support they need and deserve. Because let’s face it, the items listed above tend to be among the most expensive of all!
Starting to see why determining CA child support is not as simple as using some free calculator you may have found on the Internet?
There are other issues to be decided regarding child support in California.
In addition to the basic and extraordinary costs associated with raising your children, you and your spouse will also need to discuss and come to an agreement on:
Who deducts the children on their taxes;
Who will pay for their health insurance;
Whether you have enough life insurance to cover the children’s expenses now and also when they go off to college;
How college will be paid for;
The duration child support in California is paid (because for some children, it may extend beyond age 18)
Making the list of what is notresolved by running the guidelines longer and longer.
The California child support guidelines aren’t clear on how to handle all situations.
Back when I was a kid, it seemed the way my parents got paid was a lot simpler than it is today.
Mom was paid hourly, Dad was paid a flat salary, and that was that. They pretty much knew week-to-week and month-to-month how much income they were going to earn and take home.
Today, compensation has gotten far more complex.
Bonuses, stock options, RSU’s, commission, deferred compensation - you name it – can all play a significant role in how someone earns a living. And these compensation vehicles may not be paid out on a regular basis.
In some cases, the amount earned using these “exotic” compensation methods may far exceed the amount an employee receives through a basic salary amount. So predicting what their amounts are for the purposes of determining child support can be difficult.
Add to that more and more people are starting their own businesses, and you’ve got some real challenges when it comes to calculating the California child support guidelines.
How much is too much?
Some states limit the amount of income that is used when determining child support. The theory is that at some point, the child support award may be so high because the parent’s salary is so high, that it will far exceed what the child really needs.
But not necessarily in California.
Remember back when we said your children were entitled to share in the current incomes of both of you? Technically, that’s the intention behind the guideline.
But at what point does a child support amount become too much?
That is a topic of great debate, one that’s not answered in the child support guidelines and subject to negotiations by you and your spouse.
What about cases where parenting time is equal?
With nearly half of our clients agreeing on a 50-50 time-sharing arrangement, this is a real dilemma as the California guidelines don’t explicitly have a way to handle this.
Remember, child support is typically paid by the parent with the fewer number of overnights with the children.
But in this case, you and your spouse agreed to a 50-50 parenting plan giving each of you an equal number of overnights. How then do the child support guidelines work if you've got to choose one of you as the primary parent?
The short answer is - they don't.
In either of the cases I described above, you and your spouse would have no choice but to skip the guidelines and negotiate instead.
Which is not always so easy to do.
And the answer to "when does child support end in California" isn't as simple as you might think.
The theory in California is that child support ends when a child turns 18 and graduates from high school. So it would seem that child support ends at age 18.
But what happens if they commute to college? Don’t go to college? Boomerang back home after college?
The truth is there can be exceptions agreed upon by you and your spouse. As parents, the two of you have quite a bit of latitude to decide what works for your children, in your unique situation and circumstances.
So while child support can end at age 18, more often than not, it doesn't.
When the law gets involved, it’s a problem.
There’s something you need to understand here: In a litigated divorce, a family courtjudge determines child support.
Sounds scary, doesn’t it?
Because they’ll dictate a child support order and both spouses might wind up with something they don’t think is fair or that doesn’t appropriately meet the needs of their children.
That’s why it’s better to negotiate this issue out of the courts and that’s exactly what mediation is all about.
In mediation, you get to decide - and come to a child support payment (and agreement) that puts your children first and you both agree is fair, instead of letting your future be decided by a stranger in court.
You will get the best CA child support result by mediating with us.
California child support issues will vary based on your situation and circumstances.
And as you’ve learned, there is more than meets the eye on this topic. So don't risk putting your children's financial future in jeopardy by trying to resolve child support on your own.
Use divorce mediation and work with us instead!
Using our extensive financial knowledge of the complex matters of child support in California, we’ll help you and your spouse determine a child support amount that accurately reflects your lives as parents and the specialized needs of your children.
One that covers all basic, extraordinary, and future expenses.
We’ll talk about who your children are, what they like to do, and what it will take to make sure they’re getting what they need and deserve. Not just what the formula says you have to pay so they can “get by.”
Work through specialized cases like child support for when you share in the care of your children equally. We’ll also explore arrangements in which the children spend a majority of their time with one parent as this, too, can have its own special approach.
Help you negotiate any issues of disagreement and create an agreement you both find fair and equitable regarding the support of your children.
Make sure your agreement minimizes tax issues, avoids penalties, and improves cash flow whenever possible.
Because no two situations or sets of circumstances are alike.
Your children are unique and your child support agreement should reflect that, too.
Why be forced to accept a child support order dictated by a judge in family court when you can create an agreement that works for your children now and into the future instead?
If you want to make decisions as parents, not as litigants, do what’s best for your kids and mediate your divorce with Equitable Mediation.
Joe Dillon, MBA is a professional divorce mediator and founder of Equitable Mediation Services. Joe is passionate about helping couples avoid the destruction of attorney-driven litigation and specializes in helping couples resolve the issues required for divorce -peacefully, fairly and cost-effectively. When he’s not mediating, you can find him exercising, cooking, and watching Cubs baseball.