How much should a parent pay to support his/her children? According to the Texas Legislature, which established statutory guidelines for setting child support payments, the amount should be based primarily on the net income of the payer and the number of children before the court. However, parents will tell you it’s much more expensive to support a teenager than an infant. This is an important issue for most couples, because child support payments continue until the last child is 18 or graduates from high school. However, most courts follow the statutory guidelines because they are presumed to be reasonable, in the child’s best interest, and are easy to determine. How do these guidelines work and are they fair and reasonable for children of any age?
1. Support for Infants and Young Children. This article will focus on setting child support payments for infants and young children, because these expenses are fairly standard for most families and the guidelines work fairly well during these early years. Two later articles will discuss the varying needs of children as they mature and how parents can tailor payments to the unique needs of their growing children by opting for the collaborative divorce process. Guideline child support works fairly well for young children unless they have special medical or educational needs.
2. Support Based on Payer’s Income. In Texas, guideline child support is calculated by subtracting the payer’s expenses from his/her gross income to generate net monthly income. Gross monthly income includes all income, while deductions are allowed for taxes, union dues, and health insurance. Net resources are capped at $8,550.00 per month by statute.
3. Support Based on Number of Children. Child support payments in Texas are adjusted by multiplying the net monthly resources of the payer by percentages based on the number of children before the court. Specifically, the percentages are: 1 = 20%; 2 = 25%, 3 = 30%; 4 = 35%, 5 = 40%; and for more than 5 children not less than 40% of net resources. These percentages are reduced if children from a prior marriage are also receiving support.
4. Support in Wealthy Families. Texas courts may order above guideline support if it’s justified by the income of the parties and the needs of the children. Examples of extra needs approved by Texas courts include private school tuition, a body guard, a nanny, foreign travel, music lessons, Christmas presents, vacations, and extra caretakers for children who are disabled or have special needs.
5. Support for Special Needs Children. Texas courts may exceed statutory guidelines if a child has special medical or educational needs and the paying parent’s income is adequate. Examples of special needs include physical or mental disabilities, special educational needs, or medical conditions that requires expensive special care.
6. Modifying Child Support Orders. Once ordered, child support payments may be changed only by a court, although the parties can submit an agreed order for review and signing. Any modification of child support must be in the child’s best interest, result from a material and substantial change of circumstances or occur three years after the original child support order was entered.
7. Enforcement of Child Support Payments. Child support payments may be enforced by a private attorney or the Texas Attorney General’s office. A court may order withholding from income, levy against financial holdings, and suspend any licenses issued by the State to a delinquent parent. In egregious cases, the court may hold the delinquent payer in contempt and put him in jail, although this is rare.
Texas courts generally set child support payments according to statutory guidelines established by the Legislature. These guidelines are based on the net income of the payer and the number of children before the court. They work fairly well for infants and young children but no so well as they mature. Support payments are increased if there are more children before the court. If the family is wealthy, the courts may approve child support payments to cover extra expenses if the paying parent’s income is adequate to handle the added expense.
The next two articles in this series will discuss how the collaborative process can allow couples to tailor their child support payments to the specific age and family needs rather than using one size fits all statutory guidelines to set child support payments.