For divorcing parents, maintaining a great quality of life for their children is the highest priority. A fair and sustainable child support arrangement will ensure a smooth transition to two separate households. Most importantly, your children will have everything they need for the long-term.

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

How is Child Support Determined?

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 amount of child support.

According to the California Courts website page on child support, the calculation factors in:

  • How much money the parents earn (or can earn)
  • How much 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
  • The cost of sharing daycare

The calculation can also include costs such as child care (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 are taken into account.

How Can I Estimate the Amount?

Fortunately, the state of California has an online calculator based on the guidelines above. This will give you a rough idea of your child support calculation. 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. 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. However, you’ll need to submit your agreement to the court clerk for the judge to sign. That way, it will be enforced as an order of the court.

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, any and all paperwork that you have regarding your income and expenditure should be gathered for consideration. Everything that you pay out or that you receive and everything that counts towards your general costs of living will be taken into consideration. In this case, the more information, the better.

Documentation should include things like proof of commissions, wage slips and bonus awards, social security, disability or unemployment benefits, royalties, rent – any relevant paperwork that you have regarding your financial situation. You can also engage a forensic accountant to develop an accurate picture of a family’s income when you have a business.

What if My Income Varies?

If you’re self-employed or do contract work, there are no real separate rules. You’ll be expected to complete the same forms and submit the same income analysis, except yours will be more detailed. To work out your gross income, the courts will require all of your receipts. For self-employed parents, the process can be a bit of a challenge. Your calculation will mostly be worked out through past tax returns, current income and expenditures.

How Long is Child Support Payable?

Child support is payable 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. If your income fluctuates during this time, support can be recalculated at any time and is modifiable until they reach the age of majority.

What’s My Next Step?

Now that you understand how child support is calculated 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.