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How Child Support Is Calculated in California

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Like all states, California uses a formula to calculate the exact amount of child support that a parent owes.

Like all states, California uses a formula to calculate the exact amount of child support that a parent owes. This formula result is then applied and modified by a family court judge, who produces a final child support order. Family courts have broad discretion to modify child support based on their impression of the child’s best interests. For families in California, here’s how it works.

A financial advisor can help you create a financial plan for your family’s needs and goals.

What Is Child Support?

Child support is the amount that parents are required to pay for their child’s wants and needs, such as food, clothing, shelter and stability. Typically, these payments are structured monthly and in most cases are made to the parent with primary custody. Child support payments are only owed by the legal parents of the child. This will typically be the same as the biological parents, although not always.

Child support is highly state-specific. The rules will differ, sometimes widely, based on your specific jurisdiction. 

Among other matters, couples should understand that each state even has its own rules to determine a child’s legal parentage. While most, if not all states, rely on birth certificates and medical records to establish the legal mother, each state has its own rules to determine the legal father. In California, among other options, you are considered a child’s father if:

  • You are married to the mother at the time of birth,
  • You claim paternity, either formally or through practice,
  • A DNA test establishes paternity, or
  • The birth certificate names you as the father

How Does California Calculate Child Support?

The full calculation for child support depends not only on several family factors but also your entire personal tax situation.

Once a child support order is entered, it typically remains in force until the child reaches age 18. The only way to extend, modify or end child support is by order of the family court. For example, courts will typically extend support payments by one extra year for children who graduate high school at 19. Crucially, this is true even if both parents agree to modify the support order. Child support belongs to the child, not the parents, so the family court must still approve even an amicable change.

From there, support is based on several factors. The most important are the relative income of both parents and their custody arrangement. Typically, the parent who has primary custody receives support payments from the noncustodial parent, although this is not an absolute rule.

California uses the following formula to make its initial support calculation:

  • CS = CI (HE – (Cu%)(TE))

The formula can be broken down into the following components:

  • CS = Child Support 
  • CI = Combined Income to be allocated to support payments
  • HE = Higher Earner’s disposable monthly income
  • Cu% = Custody percentage of the higher earner
  • TE = Total disposable monthly income of both parents

For each child past the first, you multiply the entire formula by a modifier based on the number of children involved.

Rather than try to calculate child support yourself, it’s typically better to use California’s support calculator. This is available through the state’s website

For example, say that you have one child. You have custody one week per month, so approximately 25% of the time. You make $120,000 per year ($10,000 per month) and the second parent makes $60,000 per year ($5,000 per month). Without any additional factors, you would owe $986 per month in child support. On the other hand, say you had two children with the same factors. You would owe $1,552 per month in child support. 

The full calculation for child support can get lengthy and complicated, because it depends not only on several family factors but also your entire personal tax situation. In particular, your “disposable monthly income” is a term of art for taxes, and will depend on your overall financial picture. As a result, if you have an upcoming separation, it’s important to sit down with both your co-parent and your financial advisor so you can understand how best to take care of your children going forward.

Bottom Line

California generally bases child support on the parents’ relative incomes and custody arrangements.

Every state handles family law and child support differently. However, there are several broad similarities. Like most states, California generally bases this on the parents’ relative incomes and custody arrangements, with the higher-earning and non-custodial parent typically paying support to the other.

Tips on Planning for Your Children

  • The earlier you invest for your child’s future, the longer you will have to save, the more you can contribute and the more it will all grow. Follow these tips to invest in their future.
  • A financial advisor can help you build a financial plan for your family. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.

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