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Millions of families depend on child support. Single parents, grandparents, foster caregivers, and others with children in their care rely on the assistance of absent parents in providing for those children. At the same time, many who pay support complain that the amounts are unfair and excessive. How do court set those child support amounts?

Although the specifics vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the courts in general base support amounts on how much parents earn. Consequently, a person with a large income will pay considerably more in support than a minimum-wage earner will. The basic idea is that a child should live at the same economic level as he would have enjoyed if his parents were still together. This approach also recognizes the realities of the situation in which the parents find themselves.

A few important adjustments figure into the calculation of support. First of all, some states offer a credit for parents who are already paying support for other children. In other words, income already set aside for the support of one child should not be counted toward the parent’s obligation to another child. A second consideration involves medical insurance. The expense a parent incurs in placing her child on her medical insurance plan may be deducted from her gross earnings in figuring support. Medical costs are now such a significant part of family life that courts want to encourage parents to insure their children against costly medical treatment. Some states offer a deduction to non-custodial parents who exercise visitation with their children. Here, the idea is to actually reward those parents who spend time with their children. The deduction also recognizes the expense of caring for a child for an entire weekend, or during summer vacation.

Special circumstances warrant special treatment in the calculation of support. The presence in the family of a child with extraordinary medical needs, such as dialysis or cancer treatment, may prompt a court to order additional support for that child than the jurisdiction’s rules would otherwise provide. Similarly, the judge may order a parent to pay extra support for a child with unusual educational needs, such as a learning-disabled child who requires extra tutoring.

The parent who has custody also has expenses that enter into the support calculation. How much does babysitting cost? How much extra is the after-school latchkey program? A judge might consider (or, in some jurisdictions, may have to consider) child care expenses of these sorts in setting the amount of support.

For older children, courts may also order a parent to assist with college expenses, including tuition, room and board In this situation, the child herself may be expected to contribute, either by applying for all available financial aid or by holding down a part-time job. After that, the father, mother and child may be ordered to split the remaining costs.

Child support serves multiple goals. It helps custodial parents feed, clothe, house and educate their children. At the same time, it gives non-custodial parents a meaningful role in the children’s lives by offering them the opportunity to assist in all of these areas.