How Do Child Support Payments Work with Joint Custody?

Everything parents need to know about child support payment when it comes to joint custody.

Child support payments get tricky when it comes to parents who have joint custody. It’s a complex world of legalese and negotiations before you get a custody agreement that is fair (and makes sense). To help cut through the static, we tapped Molly Olson, co-founder of Leading Women for Shared Parenting and founder of the Center for Parental Responsibility. She laid the foundation on how child support works when you have joint custody over your children — and how you can ensure that in the wake of a divorce, your child is provided with everything they need to succeed and be healthy.

Getting Joint Custody

First things first, parents want to focus on the big three negotiating points: legal custody, physical custody, and parenting time. All three of these need to be considered separately when making custody agreements after divorce is filed. Why is it so important to focus on how, and when you have rights to your child? Because currently there is only one state (Kentucky) in the country that has laws supporting a rebuttable presumption of equal shared parenting as a baseline starting point for custody.

Everyone else? Well, you have to negotiate for at that 50 percent. Most states have a presumption of joint legal custody, but some don’t. “Every dad would want and need to get joint legal custody because it guarantees the basic right to be involved in medical healthcare, and religious decisions with your child,” Molly Olson says. “If you don’t get joint legal custody and you’re at the park and your child falls of the swing and they break their arm you won’t be able to bring them to the ER. You won’t be able to get a report card, and you wont be able to attend a parent teacher conference.”

After securing legal custody agreements, turn your attention to physical custody. Various states have different terms for this parental right: it’s called “placement” in Wisconsin and “possession order” in Texas — so know the difference between the two and then be alert to the different terminology so can be considered a custodial parent. Because a non-custodial is considered a non-parent under the law, and non-parents lose their right to negotiate child support and visits. “Position yourself in the best possible way to protect your time with your children and their future,” Olson says.

Focus On (at Least) 50 Percent Custody

“The tradition for the past 40 years of mothers having children 26 days per month and dad seeing his children every other weekend is a completely outdated model not backed by research,” Olson says. “It was put into action in the ‘60s based on assumptions that women didn’t work outside the home and were full time homemakers. But women work just as much as men and research clearly says that equal shared parenting is what’s best for children.”

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Her bottom line: Dads need to know that they are needed at least 50 percent of the time.

Besides it being what’s best for children, it’s also more beneficial to moms (so they don’t have an excessive burden put on them), and it’s more beneficial to dads (because the more time you spend with your child, the less child support you pay).

Finding a Fair Price

According to Olson, child support “was set up by the federal government in the 60s because there was an explosion of single moms going to the federal programs that were state supervised going to get welfare because there was no father present,” she explains. “But the federal government realized that it could afford that much public assistance to support all of these single moms so it was up to the dads to repay the public welfare debts.”

So the federal government issued a IV-D program title in the Social Security Act, requiring single fathers to reimburse the government for government assistance for single mothers. “Since then, the child support system has ballooned out of control and it’s now hidden alimony and lifestyle support,” Olson says. “It’s was supposed to be based on the cost of raising a child — which the USDA says that the current cost of raising a child is $233,000 for 18 years. That’s about $12,900 a year, which breaks down to $1,000 a month, divided by two parents is $500 a month.”

So according to Olson, child support should never be more than $500 a month per parent. And even further, “if there’s equal parenting time then there should no child support at all. Child support is not supposed to be equalizing income or lifestyle support — it’s supposed to ensure that the child or children have transportation, healthcare, education, childcare, food, water, shelter, and clothing.”

In other words, no parent should profit from divorce.

Be Skeptical of State Guidelines

“Every state has their own way of calculating child support,” Olson says. “The Department of Human Services creates the guidelines based on percent of income — not fulfilling monthly costs for children — and the rates that the state says should be paid or by fathers is far beyond the amount required to meet the USDA’s projected cost to raise a child.”

Because let’s be honest, every family’s spending and earning needs are different — so a number slapped on you by the state probably isn’t going to be the best fit. That’s why many divorced families are turning to a “Children’s Checkbook.” A Children’s Checkbook allows you and your co-parent to agree on the budget for the child. Then, each parent puts money into the checkbook every month, so when there is a cost related to the child in any way the money is simply taken the checkbook.

“It’s important — and healthiest — to put in the work to keep the lawyers, out keep the state out, and meet your child’s needs in a unique way,” Olson says. 

Mediate an Agreement, Don’t Litigate a Contract

Speaking of keeping lawyers out of it … “Parents can negotiate between themselves how best they can together pay for the child’s need without adhering to the state’s suggested child support calculations and without spending $30,000 or more on divorce lawyers concerning child support agreements” Olson says. She recommends seeking a non-lawyer mediator and drafting a pro-se motion to file a joint agreement that will act as a binding agreement while you raise your child—because you still need the law to protect you and your children from financial distress in case circumstances change after an amicable agreement is made

“A pro-se motion can be filed as a joint agreement and signed by a judge to make it binding without getting any lawyers involved,” Olson says. “I suggest you work with a mediator and remember that a better solution for the children is also a better solution for you.”