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How Do Florida Courts Determine Child Support?

If you don’t understand the laws regarding child support in Florida, the child support judgments handed down by courts can seem like a mystery. In some cases, a father of four children may end up owing less child support than a father of two, which can lead to parents feeling frustrated and wronged when the court sets child support at an amount they didn’t expect. 

The best defense against being caught off guard is to work with a trustworthy lawyer who understands the relevant Florida child support statutes and the procedures involved in determining child support. For parents who want to educate themselves about the process, we’ve compiled some basic info that will help you understand the criteria that Florida family law courts use to set child support.

Understanding the Florida Laws that Determine Child Support

Child support in Florida is primarily based on two factors: the parents’ income and the number of children. However, there are other things the court may consider when setting child support, including child care and health insurance costs as well as non-covered medical expenses like copays and prescriptions.

Florida follows the “income shares model” to determine the base amount of child support. This model attempts to ensure that parents, after they break up, continue to spend the same percentage of income on their children that they would have spent if they had stayed together. To accomplish this, the court estimates the amount that the two parents would spend on the child (or children) if the family were intact and living together under one roof and divides this amount between the parents based on their income to determine each parent’s obligation.

(The income shares model is one of three common methods that various states use to set base child support; it’s not important for you to know about the other models if your child support case occurs in Florida, but if you’d like to learn about the other two methods, you can read more here.)

Florida family law courts refer to the child support guidelines in the Florida Statutes when setting child support payments. In theory, the guidelines set the amount of child support, and the judge simply orders that amount to be paid. However, the judge does have discretion to vary the amount of child support up to 5 percent above or below the guidelines, and they can change the amount even further if they compose a written finding that explains why the amount of support set by the guidelines isn’t appropriate for the case at hand.

The Child Support Process: A Step-by-Step Guide

The process of setting child support in Florida consists of three major steps: establishing both parents’ income, consulting the Florida child support guidelines to calculate a base amount of child support, and factoring in other expenses to calculate the final child support figure. Below is a more detailed discussion of each step.

Step 1: Establishing Income with Financial Affidavits

At the beginning of the divorce process, both parties must complete and file financial affidavits that detail their income and expenses. (Parties with a gross income of $50,000 or less can fill out a shorter, simplified version of the form, while spouses who have $50,000 or more in gross income must fill out the long version.) The first part of the affidavit will establish the party’s monthly gross income, which includes most types of earned and unearned income. Common types of income considered include:

  • Salary or wages, including overtime
  • Bonuses, commissions, allowances, and tips
  • Business income, including from self-employment and independent contracting
  • Rental income (minus ordinary and necessary expenses)
  • Social Security and disability benefits
  • Workers’ compensation benefits and settlements
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Pension payments or payments from a retirement account
  • Spousal support, either from a previous divorce proceeding or as ordered by the court in the current divorce proceeding
  • Interest, dividends, and capital gains
  • Income from royalties, trusts, or estates

After establishing gross income, each party can deduct certain expenses and costs to determine monthly net income. Examples of deductions that are allowed include:

  • Federal, state, and local taxes
  • Federal insurance contributions or self-employment tax
  • Health insurance payments (excluding those that go toward coverage for the children)
  • Mandatory union dues and retirement payments
  • Court-ordered child support for other children
  • Spousal support, either from a previous divorce proceeding or as ordered by the court in the current divorce proceeding

Step 2: Consulting the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet

Once the court determines each party’s net income, it adds the two incomes together (according to the income shares model) and then consults the table in the state’s child support guidelines to determine the amount of child support based on the income figure and the number of children from the marriage. Then, the court assigns a percentage of the overall child support obligation to each parent based on their net income.

Step 3Considering Other Expenses

As mentioned previously, income is not the only factor in determining child support; some other expenses, like educational costs, healthcare premiums, and child care expenses, can play a role in child support calculations. After establishing the parties’ net incomes, the overall support amount, and the percentage of the overall amount that each parent is responsible for, the court will consider any additional expenses and update the overall support amount. Each parent will still be responsible for their percentage of the overall amount, as determined in the previous step.

In some cases, both parents may be able to work out a mutually beneficial agreement regarding these expenses. For example, if one parent’s job offers quality health care coverage while the other’s employer has on-site child care, the parents may agree that the one parent will be responsible for health care and the other will bear the responsibility for child care, rather than splitting both expenses proportionally. However, the parents must inform the court about this arrangement and receive approval before going forward with it.

What Happens If One Parent Quits Their Job to Avoid Paying Child Support?

During a divorce, parents with troublesome spouses may find themselves wondering: What happens if the other parent quits their job or cuts back on their hours just so they can avoid paying child support?

To deter parents from deliberately becoming underemployed (for example, by reducing their hours) or becoming unemployed, Florida law allows the court to assume (or “impute”) a certain amount of income on the part of an unemployed or underemployed parent. Essentially, the court will treat that person as though they have a full-time income for child support purposes, even if they’re working less than full-time or not working at all.

The court can only do this if the parent’s unemployment or underemployment is voluntary and not due to circumstances beyond their control, and the statutes establish specific rules that determine how the court may calculate this imputed income.

Is It Possible to Modify Child Support in Florida?

Florida law allows for modifications in child support, but the court will only consider a change if one of the parents is able to demonstrate a “substantial and ongoing change in circumstance.” Examples of such changes might include one spouse losing his or her job, changing careers with a significant difference in compensation, or receiving a noteworthy raise at work. Changes in parenting patterns — for example, one parent taking more or fewer overnights with the children than called for in the parenting plan — can also provide grounds for modification.

The Florida statutes allow parents to file a child support modification petition any time such a situation would result in a change of at least 15 percent or $50, whichever is greater. For example, if you currently owe or receive $1,000 per month in child support, you would be eligible to file a petition for modification if it would raise the amount of support to at least $1,150 per month (plus 15 percent) or lower it to $850 or less (minus 15 percent).

It’s important to understand, though, that the court won’t automatically modify a child support judgment just because you’ve experienced a significant change in circumstances. Filing a petition for modification can be an involved process that requires as much time and paperwork as the initial child support case, which is why it’s always best to work with an experienced family law attorney whether you’re establishing or seeking to modify child support.

Contact the Devolder Law Firm for Help with Child Support in New Tampa, Wesley Chapel, and the Tampa Bay Area

Even if you understand the laws and procedures that Florida courts use to set child support, the paperwork can be confusing, and the accompanying process requires time and attention to detail. In addition, disputes often arise during these cases, and the process of setting child support is rarely as straightforward as the statutes would seem to indicate.

If you need help establishing or modifying child support, the team at the Devolder Law Firm is here to guide you and act as your advocate through every step of the process, including helping you to fill out and file the appropriate paperwork, arguing on your behalf before a judge, and filing a petition for modification if your circumstances change.

To get started and meet the Devolder Law Firm team today, call us at (813) 773-8233 or fill out our convenient online contact form and we’ll follow up with you to schedule an initial consultation.

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.