The Federal Child Support Guidelines: Step-by-Step

Step 3: Determine the parenting arrangement

This step will help you determine what kind of parenting arrangement you have for child support purposes. You need to go through this step because the type of parenting arrangement you have can affect the way you calculate child support under the Federal Guidelines.

The Federal Guidelines use the following three terms to describe parenting arrangements: “sole custody,” “split custody” and “shared custody.” For child support purposes, these terms refer to the time the child spends with each parent. They do not refer to who has legal authority to make major decisions about the child.

These terms may be different from the ones found in your custody order or agreement. For example, your order or agreement may use terms such as “parenting time,” “parenting schedule” or “residential schedule.” Even if the terms are the same, they may have a different meaning.

Please read the descriptions below carefully to find out which one fits your situation best.

Sole custody

You have a sole custody arrangement if your child spends more than 60 percent of the time with one of you over the course of a year.

Maria and Pedro

Maria and Pedro have decided to divorce. Their children, Christine and Manuel, are having a hard time coping with the idea. They are afraid of the changes it will mean in their lives.

Maria and Pedro want to protect their children as much as possible. They agree that it will probably be better for Christine and Manuel to continue living in the family home with Maria. It is closer to their school and friends than the new place Pedro plans to move to. The children will spend a fair bit of time with Pedro, too, especially on weekends and holidays. But Maria and Pedro calculate that, over the entire year, the children will spend 65% of the time with Maria and 35% of the time with Pedro. This means that Maria will have sole custody for child support purposes, although they have decided that they will have joint custody for decision-making purposes. Pedro will pay support.

Split custody

You split custody of your children if:

  • you have more than one child; and
  • you each have sole custody of at least one of the children.

Bill and Janet

Bill and Janet have decided to go their separate ways and get a divorce. They are having a hard time agreeing on the parenting arrangements for their three children. But there is one thing they do agree on—that it is important to put their children’s best interests first.

They both realize that their oldest child, 15-year-old Marc, is particularly close to Bill. After discussing the issue with Marc, they all agree that it will be best for Marc to spend most of the time with his father. With the help of a mediator, Bill and Janet are also able to agree that the two youngest children, three-year-old Caroline and five-year-old Albert, will spend time mainly with Janet.

In other words, Marc will spend more than 60% of the time with Bill while Caroline and Albert will spend more than 60% of the time with Janet over the course of a year. This means that Bill and Janet will each have sole custody of at least one of the children. They have a split-custody arrangement.

Shared custody

You share custody of your children if they spend at least 40 percent of the time with each of you in a year.

Malia and Emma

Eight-year-old twins Malia and Emma are very worried. They have just found out that their dad, Raoul, and mom, Lily, have decided to divorce and live in separate homes. Malia and Emma wonder where they will live. They are afraid that if one of their parents lives in a different house, they will hardly ever see that parent again. This happened to one of their friends at school.

Raoul and Lily listen to their children’s concerns. They assure Malia and Emma that they both love them very much and will always be their parents. They also explain that the children will get to live in two houses.

Lily and Raoul have a number of discussions and take a close look at their family’s situation to come up with a plan that is workable and best for Malia and Emma. They explain to Malia and Emma that they will spend alternate weeks with each parent. They will spend one week with mom, and they will spend the next week with dad. The schedule will vary a bit sometimes. For example, in the summer, Malia and Emma will spend a complete month with each parent. But they should not worry. Mom and dad will work together to ensure that their decisions are in Malia’s and Emma’s best interests.

Since Malia and Emma spend at least 40% of the time with each parent, Raoul and Lily have a shared-custody arrangement for child support purposes.

Other arrangements

It is possible that you will have different parenting arrangements for each child of the marriage. If that is the case, figuring out child support could be more complex and you may want to talk to a lawyer to help you with your specific situation.

Remember, the terms used here are for child support purposes. You may use different terms in your custody and access arrangements. You may find it helpful to refer to the publication Making Plans: A guide to parenting arrangements after separation or divorce. It has information on different types of parenting arrangements and terms that may be used.

Recap

You should now know the type of parenting arrangement that best describes your situation. You may want to add this information to section 4 of your Child Support Tool.

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