The Basics of Joint Custody and Child Support

If you have joint custody, make sure you know how child support obligations may be affected.

Joint physical custody, when both co-parents share the responsibility of day-to-day care of their child or children, is one of the most common shared parenting arrangements after a divorce or separation. Yet many parents are still in the dark about the ways that joint custody and child support interact.

Do you still have to pay child support when you have joint custody?

The short answer is: yes. Shared parenting arrangements that include joint physical custody do not negate child support obligations between parents. But there are many key factors that may affect the amount of child support owed.

When one parent has sole physical custody, typically the other parent will be responsible for making child support payments. These child support payments help the custodial parent with providing shelter, food, clothing, and other necessities for their children. Learn more about what’s covered by child support in this article.

When physical custody is shared, however, both parents will be providing those basics to their children independently. That fact may lead some co-parents to believe that their state's child support laws will not apply to them, but that's simply not the case.

Certain states do allow judges discretion over when it's appropriate to deviate from the state's child support formulas, and some may choose to do so for situations that involve joint physical custody. But that's not a guarantee and a deviation from standard child support formulas could still involve one parent being responsible for child support payments in some form.

What affects the amount owed for child support in families with joint custody?
 

Income Shares vs. Percentage of Income Models

The ultimate goal of child support laws is to ensure that children have access to the same standard of living that they would if both of their parents were living together. Most state child support laws use one of two ways to determine child support obligations. It's helpful to understand which model your state uses because it will affect the calculation of your child support obligations.

Income Shares Model

The income shares model uses the combined monthly income of parents and the number of children to determine child support obligations. Once the child support obligation is determined, the court uses the parents’ proportional contributions to the combined monthly income to divide the obligation between them.

There is a refined version of the Income Shares model, called the Melson Formula, that also takes a parent's ability to meet their own basic needs into account when calculating child support obligations. The Melson Formula is only used by three states: Delaware, Hawaii, and Montana.

Percentage of Income Model

The percentage of income model determines child support obligations by using a percentage rate of a parent's monthly earnings. That percentage can be dependent on the number of children. Certain states have a flat rate that is applied across all income levels. Other states have varying percentage rates that take the obligor's income level into account.

Parenting time

Many states have provisions in their child support laws that take the allocation of parenting time into account when calculating child support obligations. Even parents who do not have an equal 50/50 split in parenting time may see a reduction in their child support payments.

When determining how parenting time should affect child support obligations, courts frequently use the number of overnights each parent has with their children. Many court websites have parenting time calculators or worksheets to help co-parents determine the number of nights each has for a certain year.

Certain states also take 'equivalent care' into account when modifying child support obligations. Equivalent care, which may be referred to by a different term in your state, is time spent with one parent that does not include overnight stays but during which the parent still incurs expenses roughly equivalent to parenting time with an overnight stay.

Parent Income

In certain situations where parents have equal amounts of parenting time and also have roughly equal income, it may be the case that no child support is paid between co-parents. If co-parents come to a collaborative agreement that no child support is to be paid between them, some courts may be able to accept that agreement if, and only if, they determine that it's in the best interests of the child.

However, if there are differences in income between parents, that will have an effect on the amount of child support owed.

Child support laws are complicated with many added factors that have the potential to affect the calculations of child support obligations. It's absolutely vital that parents consult a legal professional in their area about their own child support issues.