While there is a relationship between parents’ custody rights and child support obligations in Tennessee, custody is just one of several factors considered when calculating child support. In situations where the parents share equal custody, they will generally both have financial support obligations as well.
For divorcing and separating parents, discussions of child custody and child support often go hand-in-hand. As a matter of public policy, both parents have a legal obligation to provide continuing financial support for their children, and it is generally understood that it is in a child’s best interests to continue to spend time with both parents after their divorce or separation.
But, when it comes to determining parents’ custody rights and child support obligations, in our experience, there are a number of common misconceptions. Among them, it seems that many people do not have a clear understanding of the legal relationship between child custody and child support under Tennessee law.
How Does Child Custody Impact Child Support in Tennessee?
In Tennessee, parents’ child custody rights (technically referred to as “parenting time”) can have a significant impact on their child support obligations. This is through what is referred to as a “Parenting Time Adjustment” in the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. While the rules regarding Parenting Time Adjustments are complex and involve some confusing terminology, the basic concept is that the more time you spend with your children, the less you will have to pay in child support. So, if you have a 50/50 custody arrangement, all other factors being equal, you will pay less than you would if you only spent every other weekend with your children.
However, it is important to be clear that this applies specifically to court-ordered child support payments from one parent to the other. Under Tennessee law, all parents have a general obligation to financially support their children. So, while you may be paying less in child support with equal parenting time, this does not mean that you have any less of an obligation to meet your children’s financial needs while they are in your care.
What Other Factors Determine Parents’ Child Support Payment Obligations?
Along with parenting time rights, the primary factors involved in calculating child support in Tennessee are the parents’ respective income levels. There are 33 steps involved in determining parents’ financial obligations post-separation or post-divorce (although there are automated calculators available), and these steps walk through the process of calculating each parent’s income and applying various provisions of the guidelines to determine their respective abilities and obligations to pay.
In most cases, calculating the parents’ income is fairly simple – they can simply use their pay stubs and W-2s. However, tips, commissions, business income, and other non-traditional income sources can complicate the calculation, and there are circumstances in which income may be “imputed” to one or both parents as well. For example, it may be appropriate to impute income to a parent if:
- There is no reliable evidence of the parent’s source(s) of income;
- The parent is willfully unemployed or underemployed; or,
- The parent has non-income-producing assets but does not have regular earnings.
What Expenses Does (and Doesn’t) Child Support Cover?
Child support covers all expenses related to the child’s daily living needs. This is referred to as the “Basic Child Support Obligation” and includes things like food, clothing, and school supplies. Once the Basic Child Support Obligation has been calculated, then the paying parent’s child support obligation may be increased (or “adjusted”) to cover health insurance premiums, uninsured medical expenses, and work-related childcare.
A child support order can also cover educational expenses for private or special schooling, and child support can be used to address financial responsibility for, “things [such] as music lessons, camps, travel, and other activities that may contribute to the child’s cultural, social, artistic, or athletic development,” if they exceed seven percent of the Basic Child Support Obligation. Parents also have some flexibility to deviate from the guidelines by mutual agreement
One major child-related expense that generally is not covered by child support is higher education. Parents are not legally required to pay for their children’s college education in Tennessee. As a result, college tuition, housing, and books are not factored into child support calculations.
However, this does not mean that parents are without options when it comes to ensuring that their former spouse or partner will contribute to their children’s higher education expenses. Parents can address higher education expenses separately from child support during the separation or divorce process, and they can enter into a binding agreement similar to their agreements regarding parenting time, child support, property division, and alimony. When addressing college costs during a separation or divorce, parents should be as clear and detailed as possible (e.g., are they agreeing to cover private school tuition or in-state public school tuition only), and they may want to consider options such as setting up a trust to ensure that saved funds will remain available to meet their children’s needs.
What If My Spouse and I Have Equal Income and Equal Parenting Time?
What if you and your spouse earn equal incomes and you will be sharing equal parenting time after your separation or divorce? Although this scenario is relatively unlikely, it does represent a possible exception to the general rule that one parent will be obligated to pay child support following a separation or divorce. The Tennessee Department of Human Services’ Child Support Guidelines FAQs state: “There will be a child support obligation for children who spend exactly equal time with each parent unless both parents have exactly the same income and expenses for the child.”
Questions about Child Support in Tennessee? Contact Us for an Initial Consultation
If you are preparing to go through a separation or divorce in Tennessee and would like more information about child support, parenting time, or any other aspect of the process, we encourage you to contact us for an initial consultation. To speak with an experienced family law attorney at our offices in Clarksville or Springfield in confidence, please call us or inquire online today.