Your highest priority as a divorcing parent is to maintain a great quality of life for your children. By developing a fair and sustainable child support arrangement, you can ensure a smooth transition to two separate households. And most importantly, your children will have everything they need for the long-term.

So, how do you calculate child support in California? Let’s walk through the process.

How is Child Support Determined in California?

California law mandates 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.” To make sure this happens, California has a statewide formula (called a guideline) for determining the child support amount.

First, let’s look at the California Courts website page on child support to understand the calculation. They factor in:

  • Money the parents earn (or can earn)
  • Other income each parent receives
  • How many children the parents have together
  • How much time each parent spends with the children (time-share)
  • The tax filing status of each parent
  • The support of children from other relationships
  • Health insurance expenses
  • Mandatory union dues or retirement contributions
  • Costs of sharing daycare

The calculation can also include costs such as childcare (to allow the parent to work or to get training or schooling for work skills), traveling for visitation, educational needs, and any other special needs.

It’s important to note that the court bases child support on a parent’s “net disposable income.” In other words, the parent’s income after state and federal taxes and other required deductions.

How Can I Estimate the Amount?

Fortunately, to calculate child support in California, there’s an online calculator based on the guidelines above. This will give you a rough idea of your child support amount. There’s also a detailed user guide to help you work through the calculator.

However, the Court Commissioner or Family Law Judge has the final authority to determine the amount of a child support order. Keep in mind that this calculator provides only an estimate and is not a guarantee.

Can We Agree to An Amount on Our Own?

Yes. Parents can agree to a child support order based on the guideline. By agreeing and signing a written agreement (a stipulation) for the guideline amount, parents do not have to go in front of a judge to decide child support. To do so, you’ll need to submit your agreement to the court clerk for the judge to sign. That way, it will be an enforceable order of the court.

However, if you want to submit a “non-guideline” support amount, a judge will need to approve it. Both parents must attest that they:

  • Know their child support rights fully
  • Know the guideline child support amount
  • Are not pressured or forced to agree to this child support amount
  • Are not receiving (or have applied for) public assistance
  • Agree to an amount of support that will meet the needs of the children
  • Think that the child support amount is in the best interest of the children

There’s no need to go in front of a judge if both parents are in agreement about child support. You just need to submit for the judge’s signature so it will be enforced as an order of the court.

What Paperwork Will I Need?

To prepare accurate calculations, you should gather all the paperwork you have regarding your income and expenses. The court will consider everything you pay out or receive, plus everything that counts towards your general costs of living. In other words, the more information, the better.

For example, you should gather items like proof of commissions, wage slips, bonus awards, social security, disability or unemployment benefits, royalties, or rent. In addition, you may want to hire a forensic accountant if you have a business. They can help develop an accurate picture of a family’s income.

What if My Income Varies?

If you’re self-employed or do contract work, there are no separate rules. In other words, you’ll complete the same forms and submit the same income analysis, except in more detail.

To work out your gross income, the courts require all of your receipts. You’ll figure your calculation through past tax returns, current income, and expenses.

How Long is Child Support Payable?

Child support is due until the child gets married, turns 18 and graduates from high school, or until the child is 19 if they are still in high school. However, if your income fluctuates during this time, you can adjust support at any time up until they reach the age of majority.

What’s My Next Step?

Now that you understand how to calculate child support in California, the best place to start is the California Courts website. They have a self-help section dedicated to child support. You’ll find clear information about the process as well as the forms you’ll need to submit. They also offer a great website called Families Change. Check out their Parent Guide for even more helpful information about figuring out child support.

If you find the process to be challenging, or if you and your spouse can’t agree on child support, be sure to consult an experienced divorce mediator or a family law attorney. Having a neutral third party can make it easier to reach the best solution for everyone.