Family Law

Child Support and Figuring Your Fair Share: Imputed Income

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
When will a court attribute additional income to a parent for child support purposes?

If you’re a divorced or separated parent, you're either responsible for paying child support, or you collect payments on your child’s behalf. Each state has developed its own child support guidelines to help parents and judges decide how much child support is appropriate. In some cases, a judge may have to impute or attribute additional income to a parent in order to reach an amount of support that will best meet the child's needs.

How Will a Court Calculate Child Support?

Many states have online child support calculator tools, which allow parents to estimate their child support obligations. These calculators base child support on each parent’s income and the number of children covered by the support order. Your state will have its own rules for determining what constitutes income. For example, one parent’s salary, tips, bonuses, overtime pay, and commissions may all count toward total income. A judge will review the child support amount and can adjust it if necessary.

Courts have some leeway and may reduce or increase a parent’s child support obligation after reviewing the following:

  • the child’s needs, including health insurance, medical expenses, and special needs
  • each parent’s income
  • each parent’s responsibility for children from a different relationship
  • the custodial parent’s needs and ability to earn income, and
  • the child’s standard of living before the divorce or separation.

Unfortunately, some parents intentionally reduce their income to try and limit their child support payments. In these situations, courts can impute income to make sure children receive the financial support they need.

Imputing Income for Child Support

Courts recognize that child support can be a heavy burden for parents trying to maintain two households. Even so, parents can’t avoid their financial obligation to pay child support just because they’ve encountered financial difficulties—they will need to show that any reduction to their income was completely involuntary.

Unfortunately, some parents intentionally reduce their own income in order to try and limit or terminate their child support payments. However, courts have options—including imputing income—to deal with these types of deadbeat parents and ensure children receive the financial support they need for food, shelter, and clothing.

For example, a judge may impute or attribute income to a deadbeat parent who refuses to work or quits a high-paying job in order to avoid or reduce child support. In doing so, the parent will be required to pay an amount of support that's based on the parent's earning capacity—what the parent was earning or could earn—not on what that parent is actually making due to the reduced wages.

When a parent’s current earnings don’t reflect actual income or earning capacity, a judge will look at a number of other factors to calculate an appropriate amount of potential income, including a parent’s:

  • historical earnings for the last 5 years
  • education or vocational training
  • employment history
  • available employment opportunities in the community, and
  • reasons for leaving a previous job.

A judge will evaluate all the evidence and testimony submitted in support of either parent’s request to impute income to the other. Based on the above factors, a court will assign each parent an income based on what the parent could be earning. Your attorney may suggest hiring a vocational expert to help prove your ex’s earning potential. A vocational expert can testify about what a person with similar experience and expertise should make. Even parents who have been out of the workforce for a long time may have a full-time minimum wage income imputed to them.

How Can I Find Hidden Assets?

Assessing what a parent should be earning is even more difficult when your spouse is hiding earnings. Your attorney may suggest subpoenaing your spouse’s bank records, paystubs, and business records to uncover hidden assets. In certain cases, you may want to hire a forensic certified public accountant. If these records show your ex has hidden money, child support will be based on your spouse’s actual earnings, including hidden assets.

Courts Impute Income to Make Child Support Fair

It might seem unfair for a court to impute income to an unemployed parent, since parents can’t control a bad economy or a stroke of bad luck. Judges recognize that in certain circumstances a parent may be unable to work. For example, a disabled or critically ill parent or one who is caring for a disabled child or a newborn may be unable to work outside the home. In these circumstances, a judge may decide not to impute any income to the non-working parent.

If you’re on the receiving end of child support, you may feel that it’s unjust for a court to impute a minimum-wage income to your formerly high-earning spouse, but remember that at some point, you’ll have the opportunity to modify or alter your child support order if you can show that substantial changes have occurred since the last order.

You should speak to a local family law attorney if you have any questions.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can I show that my ex-spouse is shifting income to a new spouse?
  • My ex has always worked for the family business, but now is being paid much less than when we were married. Will a court impute income?
  • I’ve asked the court to impute income to my ex, but I have no proof. How can I get copies of my ex’s financial records?

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