Though the Child Support Enforcement Act is a law at the federal level, it declares that it is the responsibility of state governments to set the criteria which determine child support amounts. Since the laws governing child support are determined at the level of state governments, the overall costs associated with child support vary widely from state to state. Many states have tight restrictions, which force judges to work within tight guidelines to figure child support amounts, while other states allow much room for judges to make decisions themselves. What this amounts to is that the exact same circumstances may yield incredibly different amounts of child support depending upon the state.
Each state has an individually determined formula that they make use of to figure the amount that a non-custodial parent should pay to help cover the financial needs of a growing child. Marital misconduct by the non-custodial parent and the fair division of shared assets within the marriage are not taken into account when determining the amount to be paid in child support. Child support runs until a child is legally an adult, the intention being to ensure that children are provided for in their formative years, whether or not their parents remain married. The responsibility of the parents is to give support to their children within their means.
The general functioning of child support is that if a single parent is awarded custody of a child, the parent who does not receive custody is obligated to pay a predetermined monthly amount that is to go toward the ongoing well-being of the child by helping to cover the cost of the child’s various needs. The parent who maintains custody of the child is usually not required to pay child support, on the understanding that by maintaining custody they are investing in the child’s growth. If parents are awarded joint custody, then the amount they pay in child support is based on their economic situation and the percentage of time they have custody over the child.
The amount awarded in court to cover child support costs is more than simple bare necessities. In the eyes of the court, children should share the same standard of living as their parents, and thus the amount is determined by the economic situation of the parents. If there is an imbalance between the standard of living set between the two parents, and the custodial parent is less financially well-off than the other parent, the child support paid by the more affluent parent must then work to create a balance between the two. This is the case, even if the amount being paid by the non-custodial parent is so high that it is also benefitting others in the household that said parent is not legally obligated to provide for. The basis of this sort of ruling is that children have a right to share in the standard of living of both parents equally. It would be unfair for a child to go without such support because of indirect benefits to other family members from their child support.
For all states, there is generally a rough rubric by which courts operate to determine the exact costs of child support for a given family. There are a handful of elements taken into account by the court, including the specific needs of the child, the standard of living enjoyed by both parents, whether or not the parent that has foregone custody can support himself/herself, and finally the court takes into account any other children the non-custodial parent may have.
Prior to court hearings on child support, both parents will generally be required to fill out forms detailing their financial circumstances. This will detail monthly income and expenses and any other relevant assets. There is some grey area in figuring just what exactly is considered a monthly expense and what is not. For example, income taxes, union dues, health care costs, and Social Security are all considered relevant monthly expenses and will thus be deducted from your monthly income to determine where you stand financial. On the other hand, certain debts may not be taken into account. For example, if a parent owes $300 per month on a credit card, such expenses may not be taken into account, on the basis that the court considers the well-being of the child more urgent than the paying off of parental debts. If a parent has other children from another marriage, and is currently paying child support for said children, this will often be subtracted from monthly income.