How is child support set in North Carolina?

Child support is usually set by the N.C. Child Support Guidelines. The legislature adopted the Guidelines in 1994 to make child support more consistent and predictable.

In most cases, child support is calculated on a child support worksheet. The idea is that each parent contributes to child support in proportion to his/her share of the combined gross incomes. The worksheet and calculations take into account several factors:

  • Each party’s gross (before tax) income. Gross income is used because parties can manipulate some deductions to reduce their net.
  • Each party’s legal obligation to support other children.
  • The children’s living arrangements. A different worksheet is used for primary physical custody, joint/shared legal custody, and arrangements where one child lives with one parent and another child lives with the other parent.
  • The chart “lookup” number, which is described below.
  • Children’s health insurance premiums and work-related day care expenses.
  • Extraordinary expenses, as described below.

A legislative study commission determined how much parents in different income groups spent on child-related expenses for a given number of children. The study commission included both children’s individual expenses (like clothing and school supplies) and a share of fixed household expenses (like rent and vehicle expense). That “lookup” number for each income group is in a chart, with entries for one child, two children, etc.

Certain other costs are added to the lookup number, such as the children’s portion of health insurance premiums and work-related day care expenses. Judges have discretion to add “extraordinary expenses”. These include expenses for the child’s benefit that are beyond the usual things child support covers. Examples may include a child’s unusually high medical expenses, orthodontic care, and summer camps.

We apply each party’s relative percentage of income to the total expenses, with modification for joint or split custody arrangements. If the child support payor pays for health insurance, day care or extraordinary expenses, then the child support payment is adjusted to prevent double payment.

Judges have discretion to deviate from the child support Guidelines in cases where fairness requires it, for example, if the parties’ incomes are above the Guidelines chart, or if one party artificially depressed his/her income.

Child support can be set by agreement or by court decision. Child support can be paid directly to the payee or through the Court (sometimes including wage garnishment). If payment is through the Court, the Court will assist in enforcement; if child support is delinquent, the Clerk of Court will bring contempt charges against the payor.

Help on child support cases can also come from a private attorney or (for parties due to receive child support) from the County’s Child Support Enforcement (CSE) Office. Because CSE is a government agency, it has some enforcement tools that private lawyers do not have, like intercepting tax refunds, and it has a sliding fee scale that is usually less expensive than private attorneys. By comparison, private attorneys often have smaller caseloads and can provide more personalized attention. Private attorneys handling other aspects of one’s family law case may be more convenient for the client. However, when child support is the only issue, or when saving money on fees is critical, the CSE office is an excellent alternative. Because CSE represents only payees, payors needing representation would need a private attorney. Private attorneys usually represent both payors and payees.

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