Unemployment and Divorce: How Child Support Is Calculated When One Parent Doesn’t Work

Marriages may not always last, but supporting children until they reach legal adulthood is not an option. Laws in the U.S. make it clear that if you have children, you are obligated to provide for their food, shelter, healthcare, and education while they are minors. When you get a divorce and have minor children from the marriage, a judge will likely ensure that at least one former spouse has custody over the children and takes care of their daily needs. One or both former spouses will also have financial responsibility. While your ability to pay will factor into the equation, it’s not the most important consideration. The most important consideration will be: How much financial support does the child reasonably need?

So what happens when one ex-spouse doesn’t work? Here is how that impacts the situation. Do be aware that the following is a general description, though. If you want advice specifically relevant to your circumstances, and relevant to the state you live in or the state which has jurisdiction over your divorce and child support matters, you should contact an experienced attorney.

If you have primary custody:

Typically, if you have primary custody, and you either do not have a job, or you earn significantly less than your former spouse, you will probably not have to provide child support. A non-custodial parent generally makes child support to the custodial parent to help cover the costs of raising a child.

If you have primary custody, lose your job through no fault of your own, or are unable to work because of a disability or other reason, it is possible child support payments from the non-custodial parent might be increased to ensure children have sufficient resources.

Remember that a court must handle all modifications of child support. Informal arrangements are not sufficient.

If you do not have primary custody:

If you do not have primary custody, a court will generally look at your actual earnings and your earning capacity to determine what you owe for child support. The idea is that parents should not be permitted to be voluntarily unemployed or underemployed just to shirk child support obligations.

Potential income is often determined by looking at the parent's education level, job skills, and the local job market.

In addition to income, other factors that may be considered when calculating child support include:

  • The number of children being supported
  • The specifics of the custody arrangement (e.g., how much time each parent spends with the child)
  • The needs of the child (e.g., medical expenses, childcare costs)
  • Any special expenses related to the child's education or extracurricular activities

In most states, there are guidelines in place to help determine the appropriate amount of child support. These guidelines usually consider both parents' income and the number of children being supported. However, judges have the discretion to deviate from these guidelines if they feel it is in the child's best interests.

Usually, if you lose your job, courts will not allow you to skimp on child support. A personal loan is often the best solution for short-term bouts of unemployment. If you are forced to go without income due to circumstances beyond your control, such as a disability, courts may be willing to reduce your obligation. In those instances, it is best to hire an experienced attorney and go through the appropriate steps to seek a child support modification.


Dror Bikel

Dror Bikel co-founded Bikel Rosenthal & Schanfield, New York’s best known firm for high-conflict matrimonial disputes. A New York Superlawyer℠ and twice recognized (2020 and 2021) New York Divorce Trial Lawyer of the Year, Dror’s reputation as a fearsome advocate in difficult custody and divorce disputes has led him to deliver solid outcomes in some of New York’s most complex family law trials. Attorney Bikel is a frequent commentator on high profile divorces for national and international media outlets. His book The 1% Divorce - When Titans Clash was a 5-category Amazon bestseller.

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