How Does Child Support Get Determined in a Divorce?

Categories: divorce


When you go through a divorce with children in Wisconsin, you can expect child support to play a role in the process. Both parents have a legal obligation to provide financial support for their children under Wisconsin law. As a general rule, the parent with primary physical placement after a divorce will be entitled to ongoing child support payments through each child’s 18th birthday (with some exceptions).

In order to calculate child support, parents in Wisconsin generally must follow the Wisconsin child support guidelines. These are court-imposed guidelines that establish parents’ minimum financial obligations subsequent to a divorce.

Calculating Income for Purposes of Child Support in Wisconsin

Along with physical placement, the other primary factor involved in determining child support in Wisconsin is parental income. Depending upon the circumstances involved, a parent’s income can be calculated based upon:

  • Gross income
  • Ability to earn
  • Available income
  • Imputed income

1. Gross Income

Under Wisconsin law, gross income includes “earnings and income from all sources,” regardless of whether it is taxable and regardless of whether it is in the form of money, property, or services. Examples of earnings that must be included in a parent’s gross income for purposes of calculating child support include:

  • Wages, salaries, tips, commissions, and bonuses
  • Interest, dividends, and capital gains
  • Workers’ compensation and personal injury awards that provide wage replacement
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Income continuation and Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) benefits
  • Military allowances and veterans’ benefits
  • Undistributed corporate income

However, gross income does not include Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits or child support from a prior relationship.

2. Ability to Earn

In certain circumstances, the Wisconsin child support guidelines call for consideration of a parent’s “ability to earn” rather than his or her actual gross income. This can be the case, for example, if a well-educated parent stops working in order to raise a couple’s children during their marriage. When assessing a parent’s ability to earn for purposes of calculating child support, the Wisconsin courts consider factors including:

  • The parent’s education, training, work experience, and past earnings
  • The parent’s current physical and mental health
  • Whether and to what extent the parent served as primary caretaker during the marriage
  • Local job availability

3. Available Income

If a parent has child support obligations from a prior marriage, his or her current child support obligations may factor into determining his or her “available income” for paying child support as a result an impending divorce.

4. Imputed Income

Finally, if a parent’s gross income does not accurately reflect his or her ability to pay child support, the Wisconsin courts may look to the parent’s “imputed income.” This takes into consideration assets such as life insurance, bank accounts, investments, business interests, and corporate earnings that would not necessarily factor into a parent’s gross income, but which may nonetheless provide a source of financial support for the couple’s children.

Applying the Wisconsin Child Support Guidelines During Your Divorce

1. Basic Guidelines (Percentages of Income Standard)

For most divorcing parents, once each parent’s income and placement rights have been determined, calculating child support is a matter of applying the basic guidelines or “Percentages of Income Standard.” Under this standard, each parent must contribute a designated portion of his or her income to the couple’s children’s financial needs:

  • One child: 17 percent of income
  • Two children: 25 percent of income
  • Three children: 29 percent of income
  • Four children: 31 percent of income
  • Five or more children: 34 percent of income

For sample child support calculations using the basic guidelines, you can view the Child Support Percentage Conversion Table available from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families (DCF).

2. Guidelines for Special Circumstances

In some circumstances, however, the basic guidelines may not adequately apportion divorcing parents’ financial resources, or they may not adequately reflect the parents’ respective economic circumstances. In these cases, special guidelines may apply. The Wisconsin child support guidelines include special provisions for child support matters involving:

High-Income Payers

Someone who earns more than $7,000 per month is considered a high-income parent under the Wisconsin child support guidelines. For high-income payers, the percentage of income owed for child support decreases above certain income thresholds:

  • Up to $7,000 per month in income: The basic guidelines apply.
  • Between $7,000 and $12,500 per month in income: Percentage is reduced by up to seven percent (e.g., 27 percent of income for five or more children)
  • More than $12,500 per month in income: Percentage is reduced by up to an additional seven percent (e.g., 20 percent of income for five or more children)

These are marginal rates. This means that a parent who earns $8,000 per month would pay according to the basic guidelines for his or her first $7,000 in monthly income, and the high-income payor guidelines would apply to the additional $1,000 in monthly income.

Low-Income Payers

A parent whose income is between 75 percent and 150 percent of the federal poverty threshold is considered to be a low-income payer for purposes of the Wisconsin child support guidelines. Low-income payors’ child support obligations are lower than those under the basic guidelines and are calculated based upon the parent’s specific level of income.

Serial Families

As noted above, a parent who owes child support from a prior relationship will pay divorce-related child support based upon his or her “available income.” This means that his or her pre-existing child support obligations are subtracted from gross income in order to determine which guidelines apply.

Shared or Split Placement

If each parent will have at least 25 percent of physical placement responsibility, they must use the “shared placement” child support guidelines. If each parent receives placement of one or more children, then the “split placement” guidelines apply. For more information, you can read:

Disclaimer: This Article Is Not Legal Advice.

Never rely on an article for legal advice as the law frequently changes, information may not be accurate, there may be exceptions to a rule, and reliance may be detrimental. Always consult one of our experienced attorneys for competent, current, and accurate legal advice.

Speak with a Wausau, WI, Divorce Lawyer in Confidence

If you are a parent in Wausau, WI, and you are preparing to go through a divorce, our attorneys can help you ensure that you receive an appropriate child support award. To get started with a confidential, one-on-one consultation, please call (715) 842-2291 or get in touch online today.