FAQ: Child Support When the Other Parent is Underemployed

Parents in Tennessee, regardless of their relationship status to one another, have a legal obligation to support their children financially. When parents live in the same house, the law supposes that the family unit is providing for its dependent children, but when the parents split up and decide to live separately, the law requires the parent who has less custodial time with the children (i.e. the noncustodial parent) to pay child support to the parent who has more custodial time with the children (i.e. the custodial parent).

Child support payments (sometimes referred to as “child maintenance payments”) are the periodic sums of money that the noncustodial parent pays to the custodial parent to help pay for their children’s basic living expenses.

How much a parent is required to pay depends on several factors, including the number of children supported by the payments, and the combined income of both parents. This calculation can be a bit complicated, but fortunately, the Tennessee Department of Human Services’ website provides a helpful child support calculator and accompanying worksheet that will give you a rough idea of what a particular parent would likely be obligated to pay in child support.

But what happens if one parent is underemployed or unemployed in Tennessee? How is child support calculated in these cases? These situations are extremely common, so we’ve provided these frequently asked questions below. These are the rules according to Tennessee law, but please note that if you have specific questions about your child support obligations, be sure to contact us by calling (901) 562-3605 to speak to an experienced Memphis child support lawyer.

How does a parent’s income impact their child support obligation in Tennessee?

Child support in Tennessee is calculated based on several different factors, one of which is the parents’ adjusted gross incomes. The court calculates each parent’s individual adjusted gross income by first tallying up their income from all applicable sources.

This income includes, but is not limited to; salaries, capital gains on investments, payments from pensions or other retirement plans, lottery winnings, social security benefits, unemployment compensation, gifts, etc. Then, each parent’s gross income is reduced by any permissible deductions. For more information about how child support is calculated in Tennessee, visit the Department of Human Services’ website.

Will my ex be allowed to pay less in child support if they intentionally stop working or are working less?

The answer to this question depends on whether or not the court finds that your ex is willfully and voluntarily unemployed (or underemployed). The court will not assume that your ex is willfully unemployed (or underemployed) just because they are working less than they once did. Instead, the court will ask why the individual is working less, determine whether or not that decision is reasonable (when weighed against their duty to provide for your child), and evaluate if the choice to work less benefits the child in any way.

For example, if your ex might have decided to stop working to stay at home with your child because child care would cost more than they would make by going to work. In this case, the court might find that the decision not to work is both reasonable and beneficial to the child. The court could use your ex’s actual adjusted income to determine their child support obligation.

However, if the court finds that their decision to work less is not reasonable or that it doesn’t benefit the child, then it will likely impute income to your ex.

What is “imputed income” and how is it calculated?

“Imputed income” is income that is assigned or credited to a parent when calculating their child support obligation, even though it was not actually earned or received. Courts in Tennessee can impute income on parents under the following circumstances:

  • There is no reliable evidence of income,
  • The parent is willfully and voluntarily unemployed (or underemployed), or
  • The parent has income-producing assets./li>

How much imputed income a court will assign depends on the parent’s earning potential or ability. Several factors go into making this determination, namely how much the person used to make, their level of education, any job training they had had in the past, and the current employment opportunities in the area.

While the court can impute income, it will typically be no more than 10% for each year since the last time support was calculated. This means if a parent earned $40,000 a year ago, the court may determine that their earning ability a year later would be $44,000. The following year, it might be determined to be $48,000.

Is there a difference between voluntary and involuntary unemployment/underemployment?

Yes, courts in Tennessee recognize that there is a big difference between voluntary and involuntary unemployment or underemployment. As noted above, the court will sometimes impute income on a parent who is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed but, on the other hand, a parent who is involuntarily unemployed or underemployed will not be penalized with imputed income.

Unemployment/underemployment is deemed involuntary if the parent legitimately can’t find a job or earn more income, despite diligently trying to do so.

Additional Questions? Contact Shannon A. Jones, Attorney at Law

If you have specific questions about your child support obligations in Tennessee, or if you are seeking support, Memphis child support attorney Shannon A. Jones would be happy to assist you. We serve clients throughout the greater Memphis area, so contact us at (901) 562-3605 or fill out a contact form to schedule a free consultation with us.

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