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Child Support Payments: How They Are Determined and What’s Normal

Before negotiating child support payments, arm yourself with the facts.

There’s no fight quite like the fight over child support. The process to agreeing on fair payments with a divorced spouse is a porcupine of pain points. Payment structure, provisions for health care coverage, a fair price — all of these have ample legal grey areas if you and your partner are not in agreement.

“Fairness is in the eyes of the beholder,” says Molly Olson, co-founder of Leading Women for Co-Parenting says. “Regardless of whether you and your co-parent agree to a certain amount to be paid per month or a certain percentage of income to be paid per month, you have to base the amount of the unique needs of your children.” But when those needs seem, well, unfair to one party, it’s helpful to look at averages and numbers that can help balance the negotiation.

According to the USDA, it costs $233,000 on average to raise a child to the age of 18 (which is the age that child support payments end). Included in that figure is budget for transportation, education, childcare, food, water, shelter, clothing, and healthcare. If you break that down further, it comes to $12,900 a year per child — which divides to $1,000 a month. Divide that by two parents and the ballpark figure that each parent is responsible for to raise a child to age 18 with everything they need to survive growth is $500 a month per parent.

But we hardly ever see payments that are $500 on the dot. This is because the child support system is based on a “breadwinner dad” model that assumes fathers are more responsible for supporting their children financially than they are for supporting them physically. Child support payments have historically been calculated first by the amount of time non-primary custodians spend with their children, and then demanding a certain percentage of monthly income to compensate for the percent of time that children are not with that parent.

This can often lead to payment amounts that either don’t meet or exceed the financial needs of the child. Statistics from the most recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau show that on average, custodial single parents who receive child support get about $329 per month to help with food, shelter, clothing, medical costs, education, and incidentals — an insufficient amount. On the flip side, a high-income dad who makes $15.5 million per year and doesn’t have primary custody of his children, child support payments are $60,000 per month — an amount that is beyond any realistic estimate of the reasonable needs of a child.

Whether child support payments aren’t being met or are far above the norm, the current system that states adhere to fixates on enforcing payments instead of enforcing parental involvement—affecting both the lower and upper echelon of fathers. Many dads find themselves working nonstop to meet child support demands or have fallen behind on payments and are either discouraged or too ashamed to show up for time with their kids, leading to parental alienation.

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That’s why Olson recommends that parents bypass state guidelines if possible and create their own. In fact, parents are not required to pay child support through the state if there is no public assistance being used by either parent. “Parents can decide and agree between themselves on all aspects of a divorce, including child support — or rather, what are the expenses of the children and how will they be provided for once there are two households,” she says.

At the end of the day, meeting a child’s financial needs is what matters. That’s why divorced parents are looking at new ways to structure how payments are determined. A few ways to structure money to meet your children’s needs include creating a joint account that each parent puts $500 into each month that is used only for the child’s needs, setting up a 529 plan (a tax-advantaged) savings plan for future education costs that each parent puts $2,000 in per year, or splitting all unanticipated medical or miscellaneous expenses 50/50. Be prepared to decide how much money each parent is responsible for to meet a child’s needs, decide how money will be paid and when payments will be scheduled, and remember Olson’s words: “Parents can make decisions that are best for the unique needs and values of their family.”

The most important part of preparing yourself for the legalities of child support is to acknowledge that what is “normal” in the legal system may not be what’s best for your family — and actually isn’t what’s best for most. That’s why it’s so important to break down the budget for your child’s needs and to create an agreement that meets those needs for your child.