California Child Support

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Child support in California is determined using a guideline, which is mandatory. According to the California Family Code, all children have the fundamental right to be supported by both parents, therefore support is set at levels defined by the guideline even in cases where support levels seem very high or prevent the higher earner from keeping enough income to run a household of their own. This is especially true where there are several children receiving support and the custodial parent doesn’t contribute to the support of the children by becoming employed.

Obtaining Child Support in California

There are several situations where a parent in California would need to have the court issue a child support order. One of the most common scenarios in which such an order is issued is during divorce proceedings. However, child support orders may also be issued as part of a separate court action brought either to determine paternity or brought solely for the purposes of obtaining financial assistance from a non-custodial parent.

Parents who simply need assistance in getting support and/or in proving paternity may seek help from California’s Child Support Services Program. This program provides comprehensive assistance to both custodial and non-custodial parents and can help a parent to apply for support, obtain a support order, locate a missing parent, prove paternity, and enforce a support order. Those looking for help through the Child Support Services Program can find their local agency on the website of the California Department of Child Support Services.

Unfortunately, the services provided by the Child Support Services Program are not sufficient in all cases. The Program does not help divorcing parents to negotiate a divorce settlement, nor does it help parents to create a custody agreement. The Program is also focused only on the best interests of the child; their job is not to give parents legal advice or to safeguard the legal rights of parents. As such, in divorce cases where there are children involved or in more complex support cases, speaking with a divorce attorney or child support lawyer is advisable. .

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Calculating California Child Support

Parents who are divorcing may negotiate a child support agreement as part of an out-of-court settlement plan they create in a no-fault divorce. However, in most cases, their agreement should follow the uniform guidelines created for determining child support in the state of California. These are the guidelines a judge uses whenever he is asked to determine support, and there is a presumption that the guidelines should apply in all cases unless there is a compelling reason to accept a different arrangement. As such, parents can not agree between them to limit support.

The California child support formula essentially looks at the combined income of the two parents, determines how much support should be paid total based on the combined income, and allocates an appropriate percentage of support to each parent. The key to determining support using this formula is to determine the combined net income of both parents together. This is necessary because there is an assumption that families with a certain income range will spend a certain amount on their kids. The combined income of both parents is calculated by adding up how much each parent earns from all sources such as wages and business income, and then subtracting from this amount any money paid out to taxes, existing child or spousal support and other related obligations. 

Once the combined income has been determined, it becomes important to determine whether the higher income earner spends more than 50 percent of the time or less than 50 percent of the time when the kids.   Depending on whether the higher income earner spends more or less time of the time with the kids, a different “multiplier” is used to find out what percentage of support he or she has to pay.  Based on all of this information, the total amount of support owed to a child is determined as well as what percentage each parent is responsible for paying.  

The number of children can make a big difference in support levels. According to California’s child support guideline, the more children their are the higher the support amount will be for each successive child. For example, a couple with one child may result in a very low support amount, but add another child and the support for the second child is much higher. For a third child, the support level would be even higher. 

The California child support guideline thus ensures sufficient support and ensures that the higher income earners pays enough in support of the children, especially when the children spend more of their time with the other parent. However, California recognizes that manually calculating the formula can be cumbersome for parents looking for estimates of their support obligations and so has provided an online calculator to use to estimate support. The calculator can be found on the DCSS website

Enforcing Child Support in California

When a California child support order is issued, the law requires that the amount is taken directly from the paycheck of the obligor, which is the parent obligated to pay child support to the other. This is called an earnings assignment order, and is sometimes referred to as a wage assignment or sometimes as a wage attachment. An earnings assignment order may be stayed, which means that the support recipient will not be able to get the wage assignment order, only under certain circumstances.

Circumstances include obligor having the ability to show that support was paid on time for 12 successive months in a row prior to the request for a wage assignment, or that the recipient didn’t receive support because the recipient failed to update their address with the obligor, Department of Child Support Services, or the Court. Extreme hardship may also be a valid reason to request a stay of an earnings assignment order.  

Despite the mandatory earnings assignment order in California, sometimes a parent will not pay support as required and the other parent is forced to turn to enforcement of child support by other methods. When this occurs, the judge who issued the support order may choose to hold that parent in contempt of court. The Department of Child Support Services also offers extensive assistance in enforcing support orders and helps to locate missing parents, as well as to collect support that isn’t paid as agreed.

Attempts to collect support may include placing a lien on property belonging to the non-payer, seizing his/her tax returns, suspending his/her drivers license or professional license, or even taking criminal action. A Compromise of Arrears program is also available. This program is available to a parent who owes child support to the government in order to pay the government back for public assistance provided to the custodial parent/child. It allows for the parent to pay a reduced amount to settle the debt owed when certain qualifying criteria are met.

Modification of California Child Support Orders

After a court order has been issued for support, it must be followed by both parents unless or until the court modifies the order. A review of the order may occur every three years to determine whether support payments should be changed based on the current circumstances and/or increases in cost of living.

Parents who need modification of an order outside of these tri-annual reviews may also make a request or a motion for modification of child support in California in the event that a change is warranted by a significant change in circumstances. For instance, an increase in the needs of a child, or an increase or decrease in either parents income, may give rise to the need for a modification.

Another circumstance that gives rise to the need for a modification of child support in California is when there is a change in custody or time share that each parent spends with the child. If there is a change in the child custody arrangment, the court can consider the child support issue at the same time provided the parent requesting the custody change asks the court to do so.

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Getting Help

Most courts in California have a family law facilitator or other self help department to assist with filing papers requesting child support or changes in child support.

However, in situations of divorce, when custody needs to be determined or when there are legal complexities involved in a support determination, it is advisable to seek assistance from a family lawyer or divorce attorney. 

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