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When a couple with a minor child or children get a divorce in Texas, the court must address issues pertaining to the children before it can grant a divorce. This includes child custody, visitation, and child support. A court can order one or both parents to pay child support in a divorce case, or in a separate case known as a suit affecting the parent-child relationship (SAPCR). It is important for any parent involved in a divorce or a SAPCR to understand their rights and their obligations. This includes the parent who must pay child support (the “obligor”) and the parent who receives support (the “obligee”).
Child support in Texas consists of two types of support paid by a parent for the benefit of their children. The first part, usually known simply as “child support,” involves periodic monetary payments to the obligee to assist with the expense of raising a child or children. The second part, known as “medical support” or “medical and dental support,” consists of financial assistance with the cost of a child’s healthcare.
Typically, the parent with whom a child primarily lives is the obligee, and the parent with regular visitation rights is the obligor. Many different arrangements are possible, depending on each family’s circumstances, but this is a common scenario.
When discussing what child support is in Texas, it is also important to note what child support is not. The sole purpose of a child support order is to provide support for one or more children. An obligation to pay child support is not a penalty for misconduct by a spouse.
Under Texas child support laws, a parent’s obligation to pay support is separate and distinct from custody and visitation rights. An obligor cannot withhold child support if the obligee is withholding visitation, nor can an obligee withhold visitation because of non-payment of child support.
Texas law provides rather extensive instructions for calculating child support payments.
The amount of child support an obligor must pay is based on their “net resources,” which include:
To arrive at an obligor’s net resources, the following amounts are deducted from the above sources of income:
The Texas Attorney General (AG) publishes a tax chart every year that shows the deductions for FICA and federal income taxes.
Texas child support laws establish guideline child support amounts, based on the number of children affected by the child support order:
If, for example, an obligor has net resources of $5,000 per month, and has four children who are included in the child support order, their monthly child support obligation would be $1,750.
State law also identifies how to calculate child support when an obligor has children in more than one household. This involves calculating a credit to be applied to the obligor’s net resources.
Remember the obligor with four children we mentioned earlier? Suppose only two of the children are before the court. The guideline amount for all four children would be thirty-five percent of their $5,000 in net resources, or $1,750 per month. The child support credit would be equal to the guideline amount divided by the number of children before the court, then multiplied by the number of children not before the court. In this case, $1,750 divided by two, times two is $1,750. The obligor’s adjusted net resources would be $3,250. The guideline amount for the two children before the court would be twenty-five percent of the adjusted net resources, or $812.50.
Texas child support laws, under the Texas Family Code, set a maximum amount of net resources for these guidelines. When the Texas Legislature enacted this provision in 1995, it set the maximum amount at $7,500 in monthly net resources. It directed the AG to adjust this amount periodically based on the consumer price index. Since September 2019, the maximum amount of monthly net resources is $9,200. The 2020 tax chart published by the AG states that monthly gross income of $12,300.57 for an employed person, or $13,186.25 for a self-employed person, would result in monthly net income of $9,200.
A court may order an obligor whose net resources exceed the maximum to pay more than the guideline child support amount. Any amount greater than the “presumptive award” — meaning the amount calculated from the guidelines — must be based “on the income of the parties and the proven needs of the child.” In order to determine this amount, the statute directs the court to subtract the presumptive award from the child’s proven needs, and then to “allocate between the parties the responsibility to meet the additional needs of the child according to the circumstances of the parties.” By law, the obligor cannot be ordered to pay more than the presumptive award or the child’s proven needs, whichever is greater.
If an obligor has net resources of $9,200, and has one child, the presumptive award would be twenty percent of net resources, or $1,840. If the child’s total proven needs are $2,500 per month, then the court would have to consider how to allocate responsibility for the balance of $660. It could order the obligor to pay the full $2,500 per month, or it could divide the $660 between the parties.
If a child is already covered by health insurance, courts will usually order the parents to keep the child on the insurance plan, or to maintain similar coverage. A medical support order may require the obligor to maintain the child on their employer’s health and dental insurance plans, or to reimburse the obligee for the cost of keeping the child on the obligee’s employer’s plans. If a court orders cash payments for medical support in addition to the child support obligation, the total amount of the medical support payment cannot exceed nine percent of the obligor’s annual net resources. An obligation to pay for the child’s dental care may not be greater than “a reasonable cost to the obligor.”
The parties to a divorce or SAPCR can agree to any and all terms regarding child support, but the court has the final say. If a judge does not believe that an agreement regarding child support is in a child’s best interest, such as if the amount is significantly below the state guidelines, they will not approve it.
An obligor must make child support payments until the child turns eighteen or graduates from high school, whichever occurs laters, or the court terminates the child support obligation. Certain other events also terminate a child support obligation:
A court may issue an order to the obligor’s employer to withhold child support from the obligor’s paychecks. If applicable, it may also issue orders regarding the obligor’s duty to provide medical and/or dental insurance coverage for the child.
All child support payments go to a central location, known as the Child Support Disbursement Unit. It then sends payments to obligees.
Changing the amount of child support, or any other terms of a child support order, requires further orders from the court. Either parent may file a motion to modify child support in the court that entered the original order. Modification of child support requires evidence that:
Some SAPCRs include requests for retroactive child support. A court can order retroactive child support for a period of up to four years prior to the date that the obligee filed a petition seeking support. Courts can order retroactive support for a longer period, depending on the circumstances, but four years is presumed to be reasonable.
An obligee can file a motion to enforce a child support obligation. The court may use its contempt power if an obligor does not cooperate with the enforcement proceedings. In extreme cases, non-payment of child support may be subject to criminal penalties.
Texas child support laws can be tricky to navigate. You need an experienced attorney to help you navigate them. Board-certified family lawyer Stacey Valdez practices in the greater Houston, Texas area. She represents clients who are going through profoundly difficult ordeals, including divorces and child custody disputes. At Stacey Valdez & Associates, our clients and their families are always our top priority. We are dedicated to advocating for our clients’ rights and interests with dignity, compassion, and tireless advocacy. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your case, please contact us online, or give us a call today at (713) 294-7072. Your first meeting with us is free in most situations.