This page includes general information on California child support orders. Every state has its own laws, and you should check the state that will be deciding who will have custody.

The information on this page is not legal advice. Child support calculations can be extremely complicated. If you are uncertain about what is considered or how much should be paid, the help of an attorney with experience in the state with jurisdiction over your case should avoid a support order that is too high or too low.

Overview of Child Support

Child "support" refers to a support obligation owed for the benefit of a child or an amount owing to a county for reimbursement of public assistance paid for a child. It also refers to any arrearage (past-due support), and includes "maintenance and education."1

In California, both parents have an equal responsibility to support their minor children "in the manner suitable to the child's circumstances."2 This responsibility is also expressed in a statement by the legislature: In implementing the guideline, courts "shall adhere" to the principles 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"; and "both parents are mutually responsible for the support of their children."3

The statutory duty of support is owed to all of the minor children of the parents. It is gender-neutral and not dependent upon the parents' past or present marital status.4 Unmarried, even same-sex partners, may be a child's parents, each of whom owe a child support duty.5 Similarly, the duty to support is not limited to biological offspring. If someone allows a child to believe that he or she is the child's parent, a duty to support may arise even if the biological parent is known; sociology trumps biology.6

Unless there is an agreement by the parents7 or an incapacitated adult child who cannot earn a living and is without sufficient means8, the statutory duty of support in California continues until the child marries, dies, is emancipated, reaches age 19, or reaches age 18 and is not a full-time high school student, whichever occurs first9; there is generally no legal obligation to support able-bodied adult children past age 19.

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Child Support

In California, child support is the combined total of four distinct sub-parts, some mandatory and some discretionary, some in stated dollar amounts and some as incurred. These basic elements are:

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Base Child Support (Guideline)

Base child support in California is officially called "the statewide uniform guideline," though most attorney's just call it "formula" or "guideline." The amount established by the formula is presumed correct, unless it is unjust or inappropriate.10 ALL courts are required to adhere to the guideline, departing from it only in special circumstances.

At its root, the guideline is a mathematical formula for each child that relies primarily on three key components11:

If parents have more than one child, the guideline amount is a total calculated for all of the children, but the amount for each child is NOT equal (the amount for the youngest child is the highest) and should be separately stated in any order.

California's guideline is the most complicated child support formula in the nation, and it is all but impossible to calculate without a computer. At the present time, the Judicial Council of California has certified the following computer programs to determine child support calculations under the California uniform child support guideline:

Care should be taken, however, because each computer program approaches the computation of guideline child support differently. Using the same raw data, it is possible for these computer programs to give dramatically different results, and the assistance of someone knowledgeable about what situations cause different outcomes is essential to obtaining the best result in a specific situation. It is also wise to know which software the judge will be using on the bench; arguing that the computer program being used by the judge is wrong is an uphill battle, at best.

IF DCSS IS COLLECTING CHILD SUPPORT: If either parent asks the Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) for any California county to oversee the collection of child support, the court MUST use the California Guideline Child Support Calculator; no other program may be used. Even so, when there is a difference between the spousal support amount computed using this software and one of the other computer programs, the court may use the other computer program to determine only the correct "spousal support" amount.

Even attorneys disagree about what and how data is used in the guideline formula. Mistakes can be costly and, because federal law prohibits retroactive modification of child support orders, if the computation is wrong you may only be able to correct the error into the future, not the past. Knowledge about what information is needed and how to correctly enter it into a "certified" computer program is essential to an accurate child support computation.

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Mandatory Additional Child Support

To base guideline child support, there are two categories of additional costs that a court MUST order as additional support.12 These are:

The addition of these costs as an add-on to child support is mandatory, not diecreationary. And, the court will order reimbursement for these costs if asked by either parent to do so. Put into practice, once ordered, if a parents pays for child care so he or she can work, then the court will order the other parent to reimburse some or all of the amount paid.

Be aware, there are specific procedures that must be followed to ensure that health care reimbursement claims are made and paid in a timely manner, and courts often apply these same procedures to child care reimbursement claims. If you fail to follow these procedures, you may not be able to obtain reimbursement. See, Uninsured Health Care-Expenses, below.

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Discretionary Additional Child Support

After base guideline child support and the mandatory additional child support is determined, the court MAY add two other categories of additional costs as additional child support.13 These are:

Although not apparent at first blush, these additional costs may either increase OR decrease the amount that the parent paying support actually pays in child support on a monthly basis. Take travel expenses for visitation as an example. If the parent receiving child support moves away, the court could order that parent to pay for the increased cost of travel incurred by the other parent for visitation, and the travel expenses could be deducted directly from the child support payment.

For example, if a parent receiving $600 per month in child support moves across the country, increasing the other parent's travel costs by $500 per month, then the court could reduce the child support being paid by the other parent to $100.

These additional child support costs are NOT mandatory, the court may, but is not required, to order them. But, you can't get what you don't ask for. So long as you're not being totally outrageous, the worst that can happen is the court will say no.

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Allocation of Child Support Add-Ons

When additional child support costs are to be divided between the parents, the court must divide the expenses equally between the parents, unless one of them requests that the costs be divided differently and presents the court with documentation showing that a different division would be more appropriate.

Where the court finds that an unequal division would be more appropriate, a two-step process will follow. The first step is to remove the base guideline child support from the net disposable incomes of the parents. This is done by reducing the net disposable income of the parent paying child support by the amount of the base guideline child support; this amount is simply ignored. The second step is to divide the additional child support costs between the parents in proportion to their adjusted net disposable incomes.14

For example, a parent has a net disposable income of $3,900 and pays the other parent $900 for child support, the other parent has a net disposable income of $1,000, and one parent has asked that $400 in additional child support costs be unequally divided. If the court finds it more appropriate than equal division, the court will first subtract $900 from $3,900, lowering that parent's net disposable income to $3,000. The court will then compare the adjusted net disposable incomes of the parents ($3,000 and $1,000) and divide the $400 in additional child support costs between the parents, $300 to the high-earner and $100 to the low-earner.

Be forewarned, unequal division of additional child support costs is NOT automatic. The parent requesting unequal division must ask AND demonstrate that a different division would be more appropriate, with documentation.

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Child-care Costs Related to Employment

Child-care costs related to employment or to reasonably necessary education or training for employment skills are a mandatory form of additional chid support. A court may order reimbursement for these costs if asked. In doing so, courts generally choose between two different approaches. One is to state that each parent will pay a specified percentage of the child-care costs. The other is to state a specific amount that is to be reimbursed monthly.

As simple as this sounds, there is a tremendous difference between these methods. If a specified percentage is stated, the Department of Child Support Services will be unable to collect the reimbursement. If a specific amount is to be reimbursed monthly, during months that the amount is lower or higher, one parent is benefitted, the other is harmed. And, adjustments to "past" amounts usually cannot be obtained when over or under payments occur.15

To obtain the benefits of both methods, the use of a hybrid of the two is sometimes tried. But, the courts prefer orders for a specific amount to be reimbursed monthly, and to have a stated amount interpreted as merely for enforcement purposes, when it is intended to be a specified percentage of the child-care costs, requires carefully crafted wording; the notice advising of the reimbursement procedures for health care costs should be used as well.

If this is a critical issue to you, the retention of an attorney is strongly suggested.

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Uninsured Health-Care Expenses

Health care insurance coverage provided by a parent is the coverage to be utilized "at all times" unless the other parent demonstrates it is "inadequate" to meet the child's needs.16 In the same vein, if the health care coverage provided by a parent pursuant to court order designates a preferred provider plan, that preferred provider must, without exception, be used "at all times" consistent with the terms and requirements of the coverage.

But, most health care insurance coverage requires some amount of co-payment by the insured, and uncovered health care procedure may be requested. When either happens, reimbursement may be sought and ordered for "reasonable" uninsured health care costs for the children. And, there is a rebuttable presumption that the costs actually paid for the children's uninsured health care needs are reasonable.

When making an order for add-on child support, the court must advise each parent, in writing or on the record, of his or her "rights and liabilities, including financial responsibilities" and include in its order the time for making the add-on reimbursement. In California, the Judicial Council has "approved" for optional use a form notice advising of the health care costs and reimbursement procedures. (Form FL-192 "Notice of Rights and Responsibilities - Health Care Costs and Reimbursement Procedures")

In essence, the Notice of Rights and Responsibilities form sets out the method of accounting and payment between parents. And, in generally, if works like this, the parent accruing or paying uninsured health care costs must give the other parent an itemized statement of those costs "within a reasonable time, but not more than 30 days after accruing the costs." The other parent then reimburses the portion of the payment for which he or she is responsible.

Keep in mind, the duty to give notice of expense incurred is not triggered until there is an order for payment of add-on expenses; notice of itemized health care costs is not required until the order for allocation of health care expenses incurred during the prior period goes into effect.17

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Agreement to Extend Child Support and Pay Educational Expenses

In some situations, parents may agree that child support should be extended for educational or other reasons. When they do, a written agreement may change when the duty to pay support ends. Following is a sample of how this may be done:

"Subject to the power of the court to modify the same, [Parent 1] shall pay to [Parent 2], as and for child support for [child name], the sum of [$200] per month, payable on the [10th] day of each month, said payments to commence [January 1, 2008], and continuing until further order of the court or until the child marries, dies, becomes self-supporting, reaches the age of 25, or completes 4 years of post-secondary education, whichever occurs first."

Even where this type of agreement is reached, if the child is not in the physical responsibility of either parent or is self-sufficient, though child support will not be terminated, a court may set child support to zero. An adult child returning home when school is not in session, and keeping stuff and receiving mail at the parent's home, is not enough to establish that the parent has physical responsibility of the adult child.18

In other situations, parents may agree to pay for educational expenses beyond high school. This may be accomplished by adding language similar to this to the sample above:

"In addition, during the term of the support obligation for [child name], the parents shall equally share in the entire cost of books, tuition, incidental fees, and living expenses if the child attends an accredited college, university, or private school. This obligation shall end when the child reaches the age of 25, or completes 4 years of post-secondary education, whichever occurs first."

Because a court cannot extend the duty of support or require parents to pay for educational expenses beyond high school without the agreement of the parents, most attorneys will not advise their clients to make such agreements. It is one thing to voluntarily help a child with post high school educational expenses. It is entirely another to agree to allow a court to force you to do so, especially when the future is uncertain and your family and financial circumstances may have changed dramatically.

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Support for Incapacitated Adult Child

The parents have an equal responsibility to maintain, to the extent of their ability, a child of whatever age who is incapacitated from earning a living and without sufficient means. Child support turns on time share and time share equates to physical responsibility for the child. Even if neither parent has an incapacitated adult child living in their home, if a parent has had full responsibility for the physical situation and care of a child, that parent will be treated as having physical responsibility for the child 100% of the time.19

A parent who leaves the care of an incapacitated adult child to the other parent alone may well face a child support order based on a zero time share. And, infrequent visits will be disregarded.

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1.    California Family Code § 150; Monterey County v. Banuelos (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 1299.     Return to article >
2.    California Family Code § 3900.     Return to article >
3.    California Family Code § 4053.     Return to article >
4.    California Family Code § 7602; White v. Marciano (1987) 190 Cal.App.3d 1026, 1031.     Return to article >
5.    California Family Code § 297; Elisa B. v. Super.Ct. (Emily B.) (2005) 37 Cal.4th 108, 113, 119.     Return to article >
6.     In re Jesusa V. (2004)32 Cal. 4th 588.     Return to article >
7.    California Family Code § 3587.     Return to article >
8.    California Family Code § 3910.     Return to article >
9.    California Family Code § 3901.     Return to article >
10.  California Family Code § 4057.     Return to article >
11.  California Family Code § 4055.     Return to article >
12.  California Family Code § 4060.     Return to article >
13.  California Family Code § 4062.     Return to article >
14.  California Family Code § 4061.     Return to article >
15.  In re Marriage of Tavaras (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 620.     Return to article >
16.  California Family Code § 4063.     Return to article >
17.  In re Marriage of Lusby (1998) 64 Cal.App.4th 459, 475.     Return to article >
18.  Edwards v. Edwards, 2008 Cal. App. LEXIS 589.     Return to article >
19.  In re Marriage of Drake (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 1139, 1150-1151.     Return to article >