About California Child Support

By Teo Spengler

Updated September 17, 2018

Young girl looking out of car window

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Kids are pint-sized adults but they have all the same needs, plus a few more. Children need to have a roof over their heads. They need food, clothing, transportation to school and access to leisure activities. They need haircuts, books, toys and love. All of these elements of a healthy life, other than love, require money, and that's why California law gives each parent a legal obligation to provide financial support to their minor children. The financial need, and the financial obligation, continue in full force even when the parents no longer live together or divorce. Courts enforce these parental obligations with orders for child support.

Purpose of California Child Support Laws

California's child support laws are found in the Family Code section 4053. It notes that, under state law, both parents have a duty to provide money for their children. That is why the child support obligation is mutual, applying to both parents.

The statute provides that, when parents are separated or divorced, the children should share in the standard of living of both. After divorce or separation, the financial obligation to support children is enforced with court-ordered child support payments. The amount a parent can and should provide is determined in relation to income and the time each spends with the children. That means that a wealthy parent pays more than a poor parent, and this is an intentional result, since court-ordered child support payments are intended to reduce the income disparity between the parents.

The core principal of child support in California is that the child's best interests control the outcome. It is in every child's best interests that each parent have sufficient money to provide a decent standard of living for the family, and this is one of the goals of the child support system.

California Child Support and Parenting Time

When parents with minor children divorce in California, the court order usually includes child support payments. Child support payments are sums of money that a parent must contribute monthly to help cover the costs of raising a child. Usually the parent who cares for a child most of the time gets child support payments, and the other parent pays them.

It used to be that courts talked exclusively in terms of the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent. One parent would be given custody of the children by the court, meaning that her house was the primary residence of the kids. That parent was called the custodial parent, while the other parent, often the father, was called the noncustodial parent, assigned child support, and given visitation days and/or weekends.

These terms are still kicking around in court forms and websites, but today, courts in California talk more in terms of "parenting time." Courts assign each parent schedules of time with the children. The parenting time schedule is based on many factors including location of schooling, the parents' work schedules and their living accommodations. The parent with more parenting time is still referred to as the custodial parent and usually is the one to get child support. This is because California law assumes that the parent with whom the children live most of the time by necessity pays for many things the child needs, including housing and food, and requires financial support from the other. Child support in California is not just based on parenting time, however. It is also based on the income of each parent.

Child Support Guidelines

While child support amounts in California are based on numerous factors, three are most important in the calculation. They are: the number of children, the split of parenting time and each parent's income. These factors are fed into a computer program, often Dissomaster or X-Spouse, which comes up with the guideline amount of child support.

The court is not obligated to adapt the guideline amount for California child support. However, the court cannot ignore it either since, under California law, the guideline amount is presumed to be correct. If you don't think it's fair, you can offer evidence that it is too high or too low and could be “unjust or inappropriate" in your case. The court can consider a wide variety of factors in resolving this issue, including an agreement between the parents to a different amount. Sometimes the noncustodial parent's income is so high that the guideline amount is way more than the children would need. Sometimes a child's medical needs are so high that the guideline amount won't cover enough. Whichever parent thinks that the court should deviate from the guideline formula has to convince the court.

If the court doesn't use the guideline amount, it must state on the record why it is deviating from that guideline. Under the law, the court has to give very precise information about the chosen child support amount. It must state the support the guideline would have ordered, the reasons the court diverged from that amount, and the reasons the different amount is in the child's best interests. If you make a request, the court must also state on the record each parent's net disposable income, each parent's federal tax filing status, the deductions made from gross income from each parent and the way parenting time is divided between the parents.

If the parents agree to a different amount of child support than the guideline, the court will review it. Usually amounts above the guideline amount are quickly approved. Lesser amounts are reviewed more carefully.

Length of Child Support

How long do you have to pay child support in the state of California? The most common answer is that a child support obligation terminates when the child turns 18 years old. The most truthful answer is that it depends.

Generally, child support orders specify that the parent must pay the support for each child up until the month after the child turns 18 years old. That means that if the child turns 18 on August 2, the noncustodial parent must pay child support for August but not September. However, if the child is a full-time high school student when she turns 18 years old, and lives with a parent, the child support doesn't end until the child turns 19 or completes high school, whichever occurs first.

Further, a child's "emancipation" can also cut off California child support. Emancipation happens when a child takes a life step that makes her a legal adult. For example, if she marries or joins the Army, she is emancipated. Child support also terminates if the child dies.

Note that when parents design their own divorce agreement, they can and often do stipulate to extended child support. The term can even be extended to the time the child graduates from college or finishes an advanced degree. An adult child who cannot care for herself because of a mental or physical condition may require continuing support from both parents.

California Child Support Add-Ons

Child support payments just cover the basics of room, board and school expenses. California laws provide for a number of different "add-ons" to that base amount, some mandatory, some discretionary. Perhaps the most common child support add-on in California is payment for uninsured health care costs. That means costs for health care (including medical, dental and vision) that are not covered by health insurance. The court can order them to be divided equally between the parents or order another allocation that seems fair and reasonable.

The law presumes that any bill a parent pays for medical, dental or vision care for a child is a reasonable expense, but you can still rebut that. Parents can and do object to big expenses they classify as cosmetic, which can include plastic surgery and dental treatments like bleaching and braces. It is up to the court to decide if they are necessary.

Another mandatory child support add-on in California is child care. The expenses for child care when a parent has to work, goes to school or trains for employment must be added to the child support in California. This cost is often divided equally between the parents, although the allocation is up to the court.

Possible discretionary add-ons, left to the court to decide, include the cost of private schools. This is granted more readily if the child has already been going to private school before the divorce or if the child has special needs that require special schooling. The income level of the parents is obviously a factor, too.

Other discretionary child support add-ons might include the costs of extracurricular activities and travel expenses for visitation. These requests are left to the court's discretion.

Changing Child Support

Nothing's quite as sure as change, so when your circumstances change, or those of your ex-spouse or child change, your child support amount may no longer be workable. Your best bet is to bring the matter immediately to the court's attention.

California law recognizes that circumstances change and permits modified child support orders, but not just on whim. After a child support order is entered at the guideline level or above, you have to show a “change in circumstances” to have the court consider the modification. If the order was below the guideline amount, no change in circumstances is required to ask for modification.

A change in circumstances can be almost anything that makes the picture look different. Common changes that parents use to try to modify child support orders include a change in parenting time, a change in the income of either parent, a change in the number of children one of the parents has to support, or changes in the child's needs or expenses. Obviously, losing your job is a relevant change in circumstance, as is a change in income due to activation to the United States military service.

If your circumstances change, don't wait to file the motion to modify child support, or at least see your attorney and talk about the situation. If your income drops or your expenses rise and you need a modification of your child support, acting quickly is important. The prior child support order stands and is enforceable unless and until a new one is entered. The court doesn't usually made a change in child support retroactive to a point before you filed your motion to modify.

What about a verbal agreement with your ex-spouse? Even if your spouse seems to agree with you, verbal agreements don't mean much in a court of law. The child support order was entered by the court, and you will legally owe the money the court ordered until the court changes it. Verbal agreements usually will not assist your case, and many courts won't even take evidence about them once a modification request is filed. Until you get a court order, assume that the former order remains in place.