Child support payments get tricky for divorced parents with joint custody. It’s a complex world of legalese and negotiations before parents get a custody agreement that is fair (and makes sense). In other words, the world of custody, joint custody, and child support is confusing. To cut through the static, we spoke to a variety of experts — lawyers, child support professionals, and more — who walked us through what fathers in particular need to know. Here’s how child support with joint custody works.
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.
What Is Child Support?
First, some basics. Child support is the term for the payments a noncustodial, divorced parent is required to make to support their child or children. For a more precise definition, here’s how attorney and author of the new 20 Great Tips for a Successful Divorce Tanya Helfand defines child support. Child support, she says, is “typically a monetary payment from one parent to the primary caretaker of the child, typically the other parent, to cover the financial needs of the child, including but not limited to housing, food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, and health care.”
The parent called upon to pay that support is legally known as the ‘obligor,’ while the caretaker who is receiving that payment is regarded as the ‘obligee.’ It’s also worth noting that while the amount due and the conditions for child support are governed by state law, and vary as a result, the court order will generally not result in the obligor being given physical custody as a result.
How Is Child Support Determined?
While one can certainly “file” for child support, in the traditional sense of the word, it is generally a process that’s organic and necessary to divorce proceedings. Child support is ordered by a court, the Child Support Enforcement Agency (CSEA), or those deliberating. “During divorce proceedings,” says Luke Haller of Danielson Law Firm, “child support is usually set by the court at that time and included in the divorce decree.”
It also varies by state. For instance, in Arkansas, where Danielson Law Firm is based, the state requires that the parents “legally establish the paternity of the child” before proceeding with the process of setting child support. The theory being that a father should not pay support for a child that has not legally been determined to be his,” says Haller. Generally, Haller adds, a paternity action will order support to be paid to the custodial parent, much like a divorce decree.”
However, a couple’s financial information — whether divorced or just separated — can be submitted to the court to formally apply for a calculation of child support.
How Is Child Support Calculated?
The process by which child support is calculated varies state-to-state as well, but it’s generally based on a few common factors. “In family law cases, it may feel as if the deck is stacked against fathers,” says Galit Moskowitz of Moskowitz Law Group. “The amount of child support is determined by the number of children a person is responsible for, the child’s needs, net income of the non-custodial parent, cost of living for the custodial parent, and standard of living that the child would have had if the parents had not divorced.”
These agreed-upon calculations have their limits, however. “There is a calculation program available to lawyers and the court to calculate child support pursuant to the guidelines,” says Helfand. For instance, the guidelines max out in New Jersey at a combined net income of $187,200. “When parents are over guidelines,” she says, “we look at the specific needs of the child and budget.”
Okay, How Do You Win Joint Custody?
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 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,” says Molly Olson, co-founder of Leading Women for Shared Parenting and founder of the Center for Parental Responsibility. “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.
What Dads Need to Know About Child Support with Joint Custody
Focus On (at Least) 50-50 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.”
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).
Be Skeptical of State Child Support 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 a Joint Custody 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.”
Find a Fair Price For Child Support with Joint Custody
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.”
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.