Child support is a critical issue for both parents, since child support obligations impact not only the parents’ ability to provide for the child, but also the income available for living expenses for each parent as they establish separate households. Fortunately, Florida child support is generally predictable, meaning that an attorney experienced with child support calculations can give divorcing parents a good idea of what to expect.
While it’s a natural impulse to go looking for an online child support calculator, accuracy varies. Most calculators are programmed to give a quick, general idea of the child support obligation, but can’t take all variables into account. With considerations like health insurance, split parenting time, and special needs in play, the calculation can get complicated. And, you may not know what the time-share split will be, or who will be responsible for various direct expenses when you’re initially considering divorce. So, it’s generally best to talk to an experienced child support lawyer to ensure that you’re getting the best information available.
The Basic Florida Child Support Formula
The base formula for calculating child support in Florida begins by combining the parents’ incomes. Then, the combined monthly income is used to determine the total amount of support due a child or children each month. This is commonly known as the “income shares model.”
Note that for child support purposes, “income” is not limited to earnings from work. The child support calculation also takes into account income such as:
- Bonuses and commissions
- Disability, workers’ compensation and Social Security benefits
- Unemployment insurance income
- Pension and other retirement income
- Business or self-employment income
- Income from a trust or investments
For combined monthly incomes between $800 and $10,000 and families with one to six children, this number is found on the Florida Child Support Guidelines Chart. For example, a couple with a combined monthly income of $4,500 and two children would have a base monthly child support obligation of $1,423. But, that doesn’t mean one parent will be paying the other $1,423. Instead, that number represents the amount that the two parents together are expected to contribute to the child’s support.
The next step is to determine the percentage of total monthly income attributed to each parent. If, for example, one parent in the example above earns $3,000/month and the other $1,500/month, then the higher-earning parent has 66.67% of the income and the lower-earning parent earns 33.33% of the total.
Without any additional considerations, that would mean that the higher-earning parent was responsible for ⅔ of the $1,423 ($949.15) and the lower-earning parent ⅓ ($473.85). The custodial parent would provide his or her support to the children directly, and the non-custodial parent would pay the amount of his or her obligation to the custodial parent. So, in our case, if the children lived with the lower-earning parent, the higher-earning parent would pay the lower-earning parent $949.15 per month in child support.
For most parents, though, there are other variables in play.
Though the chart provides the base amount of support due the children from both parents, some expenses are added to the base child support obligation. These include:
- Monthly child care costs
- Monthly health insurance cost (for the children only)
- Monthly medical, dental and medication costs not covered by insurance
The total of these additional costs is also multiplied by the percentage attributed to each parent and added to the base obligation. So, for example, if one parent pays $500/month for child care and the other pays $500/month for medical insurance for the children, $1,000 will be added to the total obligation. Then, that $1,000 will be split: ⅔ ($666.67) will be added to the higher-earning parent’s support obligation, and ⅓ ($333.33) will be added to the lower-earning parent’s obligation.
That brings our totals from the example above to $1,615.82 for the higher-earning parent and $807.18 for the lower-earning parent.
Of course, each parent is already paying one of these expenses. In the next step, these costs are deducted from the obligation of the parent actually making the payments. In our case, that means $500 will be deducted from each parent’s obligation, leaving the higher-paying parent with an obligation of $1,115.82 and the lower-earning parent with an obligation of $307.18.
If there are no extraordinary circumstances that warrant the court deviating from the Florida child support guidelines and the children are with one parent at least 80% of overnights during the year, then the parent with fewer than 20% of overnights pays the amount above to the parent with whom the children spend most nights.
The Impact of Shared Custody on Child Support
The growing trend in Florida and around the country is for parenting time to be more evenly shared between parents. It’s generally believed that more balanced parental involvement is good for children, and Florida child custody laws aim to foster positive relationships and regular interaction with both parents. But, that shift in balance often means the standard child support calculation won’t yield a fair result, and may put too much of the financial burden on one parent.
When there is substantial time sharing, Florida uses a slightly different method to calculate child support. This alternative approach is known as the “gross up method.” For purposes of Florida child support calculations, “substantial time sharing” means that each parent has the children at least 20% of the overnights in a year, or at least 73 nights per year.
Because the gross up method generally lowers the amount of money actually changing hands in child support, your child custody lawyer may encourage you to consider this issue when creating a time-sharing schedule. For example, if your children stay overnight with their other parent every other weekend and for two weeks during the summer, the aggregate overnights will be 66, and the standard formula will be applied. But, if that summer visitation is increased to three weeks and the kids are with your ex for spring break, it doesn’t just reduce your child support in proportion to those days–the whole formula changes.
The Gross Up Method
Using the gross up method, the base child support obligation is increased by 50%. That means the $1,423 obligation our parents above shared would be increased to $2134.50. The obligation would be split based on percentage of income, as it was in the basic calculation. That means the higher-earning parent’s obligation would increase to $1423.71–more than the total obligation in the original calculation. The lower-earning parent’s obligation would increase to $719.79.
Then, shares would be adjusted based on the percentage of overnight stays with each parent. If the children spend 100 nights with the higher-earning parent and 265 nights with the lower-earning parent, the percentage split is 27.4% to 72.6%. Each parent’s support obligations is multiplied by the other parent’s percentage of overnights.
So, the lower-earning parent’s obligation of $719.78 is multiplied by the higher-earning parent’s 27.4% of overnights, and the lower-earning parent’s obligation becomes $197.21. The higher-earning parent’s obligation of $1,423.71 is multiplied by the lower-earning parent’s 72.6% of overnights, and the higher-earning parent’s obligation becomes $1033.61.
With this method, there is one additional step: the obligations are offset. So, the lower-earning parent’s $197.21 obligation would be deducted from the higher-earning parent’s $1033.61 obligation, and the higher-earning parent would pay $836.40. (Note that, to avoid making the example overly complicated, I have not included the health insurance and child care expenses referenced above in the calculation. These items would be incorporated into the calculation in the same way they were factored into the income shares calculation.)
The difference between the income shares result and the gross up result isn’t too significant here, because one parent has the majority of overnights. The closer to equal the number of overnights gets, the greater the impact on the amount of child support actually changing hands.
Deviation from the Florida Child Support Guidelines
A Florida judge has the authority to deviate from the child support guidelines by up to 5% in either direction. The court may deviate to a larger degree only upon written findings of reasons for the deviation. Some justifications for deviation may include special needs of the child, unusually high medical expenses, non-income resources of either parent, and direct contributions by the paying parent that are larger than would be expected based on the percentage of overnights.
Florida child support calculations can be complicated, and determining how much child support one party may be required to pay often requires information about other aspects of the divorce case, such as how parenting time will be shared and whether or not one party will be receiving spousal support. Attorney Judy Ann Smith has devoted her career to helping people navigate difficult life experiences associated with family law, and she can help you understand your options and make good decisions for your future and your children’s futures.
You can schedule an initial consultation right now by calling (904) 733-9080.