The Fundamentals of California Child Support Guidelines

California Child Support Guidelines rest on one simple, straight-forward premise: Children should not suffer when their parents choose to separate and divorce.

Children are the state’s top priority.

The California Family Code declares, “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…The Guideline seeks to place the interests of children as the state’s top priority.” Obviously, children must outweigh disputes about marital assets in any divorce and divorcing couples often forget this point. 

The Code also specifies, “Both parents are mutually responsible for the support of their children.” Updated and revised in 1992, The Code is consistent with child support laws in the 49 other states, because all states must comply with the federal government’s regulations for child support guidelines. In California, the Code’s authors dealt realistically with complications of separation and divorce, but they left no loopholes and no allowance for parents’ negligence or irresponsibility. One especially telling provision in California asserts, “Child support orders must ensure that children actually receive fair, timely, and sufficient support reflecting the state’s high standard of living and high costs of raising children compared to other states.”

Standard custody and payment orders

If the children spend the majority of their time with you, you are “the custodial parent,” and the law entitles you to enough child support that your children may “share in the standard of living of both parents.” Writing the law, the legislature manifests its concern for income and childcare disparity between men and women.  Legislators did not want men to walk away with all the money and little responsibility for the children after divorce. In their application of the law, Courts follow a strict, complicated formula for determining support and physical custody arrangements. Despite their algebraic complexity, the numbers generally crunch to a predictable outcome: The non-custodial parent pays between 29 and 39 percent of his or her net income, and the children spend approximately twenty percent of each month with the non-custodial parent. Family Court judges usually approve any custody arrangement that works for both parents as long as the numbers work-out properly.

The Courts expect non-custodial parents to send or deliver their support payments within a day or two of each payday; they prefer direct deposit or automatic electronic transfer. If a non-custodial parent establishes a history of inconsistent payment, the Court may order his or her wages garnished and payments automatically transferred to an account held in the children’s names. California is equally strict about collecting arrears. Regardless of the child’s age, a non-custodial parent must continue regular monthly payments until he or she pays the sum o0f all court-ordered payments.

Important technicalities

If either parent experiences a radical change of circumstances, one or both may reopen the case to amend the support orders even after divorce has been granted. Similarly, if the non-custodial parent has physical custody of the children nearly 50 percent of the time, the Court will reduce child support accordingly. Non-custodial parents should seek legal and financial advice on the terminology in their support orders, because alimony, also known as spousal support, is tax deductible for the person paying it and taxable for the person receiving it. The recipient may count spousal support as income as he or she applies for credit; however, child support and “family support” typically do not count on credit applications. For tax purposes, though, many custodial parents ask the Court to designate all the non-custodial parent’s payments as “family support” without discriminating between child support and alimony or spousal support. At least in theory, “family support” has no tax consequence for either parent.

Other obligations

In addition to regular support payments, non-custodial parents typically must provide adequate medical and dental coverage for their children, and they must consent to paying half of all exceptional educational and healthcare costs. In most cases, child support orders expire at the time a child reaches majority or is emancipated; but parents of certified gifted children and those continuing on from high school to college  frequently stipulate that child support will continue until the child graduates from college or reaches age 22. Many support decrees also mandate inclusion of the children on the non-custodial parent’s life insurance or guaranteed death benefits.

The miracle of mediation

There really is no such thing as “an amicable divorce,” but parents can minimize animosity and conflict by retaining just one attorney and asking him to mediate their case. The mediator will collect all the necessary documents and meet with each parent, anticipating development of a “stipulated settlement,” an agreement both parties find acceptable and workable. Moreover, a legal mediator or attorney can promote resolution of difficult issues by finding compromises and quid pro quos. A perfect example of a compromise might be to hire a single attorney to handle your divorce.  A single attorney costs far less than hiring separate lawyers. A word of caution, however - if you decide one lawyer can fairly represent both parties to your divorce, be sure to retain an attorney who specializes in these type divorce cases. In Sacramento, you may want to contact the law offices of John Montero at 916.641.7977.

Go to the statutes.

All the details of California Child Support Guidelines are spelled out in the Family Code, sections 4050-4076, and you do not need a law degree to make sense of them. They are written in the legislature’s best approximation of ordinary English. You can find them online—