I see a lot of complex child support cases in my practice. One of the more frequent queries involves confusion about when and how child support can be modified:


If we agree to this child support order, can my ex bring me back to court in six months to ask for more?


Child support, like custody, takes the highest priority in Family Court – and can always be modified.


That’s a hard nut to swallow for some. A lot of time and emotion goes into building a responsible parenting plan that includes the “right” financial support number for the parents and their kids. But there are some realities of life and law that parties to a support dispute simply must accept.


Shift Happens.

Changes to either party’s income = basis to modify child support. Even if the parents originally agree to the perfect support number, but then one loses a job, child support can be modified.


Check Your Math.

California law requires use of a “guideline” formula for child support calculations. Judges and attorneys use support calculator software configured with this formula.

I often see parents who have determined their own support figures based upon what works for them. They haven’t run the figures through a support calculator program. They simply agreed that $500.00 sounded right for them. That’s great. Everyone, including the court, prefers for the parties to be able to work together and reach their own agreements. Even if the guideline calculation would have been $800.00, but the parents agree $500.00 works for them, the court will confirm it. However, this type of agreement is also modifiable.


Take-backs do apply.

Unlike the situation where the parties have agreed to the guideline calculation — where support is modifiable on any change in the incomes or parenting plan — when the parties agree to something different from guideline, that figure can be modified to guideline without any changes to incomes or the parenting plan.

One parent can say, the day after agreeing to the $500.00 figure, that they no longer agree to that number and want guideline support of $800.00. If a court motion is filed, the judge would indeed order the guideline formula amount of $800.00.

This is important for parents to understand. Often an agreement to non-guideline support is part of a larger agreement for other issues, such as a parenting plan. For instance, the parties could agree to $500.00 in support (when guideline should be $800.00) and an equal shared (50/50) parenting plan. Though the parenting plan piece of the agreement is unlikely to be modified on the court’s own initiative (though custody – like child support – is almost always modifiable), child support will be modified to the presumptively correct guideline amount by the court if one of the parents requests it. Child support is for the kids, after all – and the courts will not allow a parent to dictate what amount is right for the children absent the agreement of the other parent.


Matthew K. Purcell is a Certified Family Law Specialist, State Bar of California Board of Legal Specialization. Based in Folsom, California, the family law firm of Forester Purcell Stowell PC can be reached at info@foresterpurcell.com or 916 293 4000. This information is general in nature and should not be construed as legal advice.

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