How is Child Support Calculated?

The income shares model

Gone are the days when child support payments were calculated by simply taking a percentage of the payer’s income.  Tennessee’s child support guidelines (similar to many states) adopt the “income shares” model for calculating child support payments.  The process has become so complicated that Tennessee provides a software child support calculator to help parents and attorneys determine the payments.

Child supportHow child support is calculated

The child support calculator asks for number of days each child is scheduled to spend with each parent, each parent’s income, the amount the parents pay for the support of other children, amounts paid for insurance and childcare, among other factors.

The calculator combines the income of the two parents.  It is assumed that a percentage of that combined income will be used to provide basic support for the children.  This percentage changes depending on the number of children and the income level of the parents.

The amount needed to support the children is then divided between the parents according to the number of days each parent will spend caring for the children.  The calculator will then determine which parent will pay child support to the other.

Child supportWhat is included in child support

The support is based on certain assumptions about the costs incurred in raising a child.  First, the calculation assumes the parent who spends the majority of time with the child will take the tax deduction for the child on their federal tax return.  When negotiating your parenting plan, be careful about giving this away.  Federal law says the parent who has the child most of the time gets the deduction, not the parent who is paying support.

It is further assumed the support will cover expenses like housing, food, transportation, clothing, and entertainment.  Also covered are expenses associated with public school education, such as fees, books, and local field trips.

What is not included in child support

Expenses not included include health insurance for the child, uncovered medical expense, and work-related childcare.  However, as I mentioned above these amounts (with the exception of uncovered medical expenses) are requested as part of the calculation and the parents are given credit accordingly.

Also not included are certain “special expenses” which include summer camp, music or art lessons, travel, and school-sponsored extra-curricular activities.

Special education expenses

Notable for parents of children with special needs, reasonable and necessary expenses for special education are not part of the basic child support equation.  If your child requires services related to a disability that are not covered by the school through the IEP, a deviation can be made to the basic child support to cover these expenses.

Child support What about private school?

Generally, the family law courts are hesitant to order parents to pay for a private school education, however, such a deviation from the basic child support may be approved if such and expense is “appropriate to the parents’ financial abilities” and the child had been attending private school when the parents were married.

This is something that is considered on a case-by-case basis and will depend greatly on the facts of your situation.  Consult with your attorney for more help in this area.

What you need to know

The child support calculator can produce odd results, so most attorneys are hesitant to guess at what your support will be before we run your numbers through the software.  In any case, there is one constant when it comes to child support:  The person paying support thinks the support is way too high, and the person receiving the support thinks it’s way too low.

Also, as the income of the parties increases, the percentage of their income devoted to raising the children tends to decrease.  The effect of this is that people with low income are further punished with relatively higher child support payments.  This is why Child Support Services is constantly busy prosecuting people for failing to pay their child support.

Generally, the court will adopt the results of the child support calculator without much discussion.  Therefore, it’s important to use accurate information when entering your data.  In future posts I’ll address how to determine what information to give the calculator.

If you have any questions or discussion, feel free to comment or contact me to find out how I can help you with your situation.


  1. Lawrence says:

    In Tennessee it doesn’t really make much difference who has the child the majority of the time. The calculator assumes a certain percentage of the parents combined income will be used for raising the child, and the number of days spent with each parent is only used to divide that amount up between the parents.

    For example, I just ran a sample calculation assuming mother had a monthly income of $2,000 and father has a monthly income of $6,000. With each parent spending 182.5 days with the child (perfect 50/50 split) father would pay $492 per month to mother.

    Due to the disparity in incomes, even if father spends 215 days with the child and mother has 150 days of visitation, father would still have to pay $229 per month to mother.

    In fact, with these numbers mother would receive child support as long as she spends at least 122 days with the child. Only if her days drop to 121 or less would she have to pay. At 121 days of visitation, mother would have to pay $5 per month to father.

    Thanks for your comment!

  2. Tom says:

    In a situation where the parents are granted 50/50 custody, the terms of the payments are further complicated. In Washington State, it’s very unusual to have a 50/50 custody outcome. But in those cases, which parent has the child(ren) more time? Which parent must pay the other? When the mother’s tax return clearly proves a higher income, the court will often still require the father to pay a higher support. Just another addition to an already complicated matter.

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