Under California law, both parents are equally responsible for the financial support of their children. When computing how much child support is owed or received, the court considers each parent’s income to be a key factor.
Some parents choose to deliberately reduce their income to avoid the responsibility of paying support, or to increase the amount of support the other parent is ordered to pay.
Unfortunately, the children become the victims of this behavior. The court is invested in doing what is in the best interests of a child, so often it will attribute – or impute – income to one or both parents before ordering support.
Imputed Income Defined
If the court imputes income to one or both parents it is, in effect, saying that is the amount the parent could be earning. The court then bases its award of child support on that income, not what the parent claims to be earning. Judges do this to make sure children are receiving an amount that ensures their needs are met – and to prevent a parent avoiding child support altogether.
For example, if a parent up until the divorce has been earning $75,000 per year and then suddenly claims they’re earning minimum wage, the court will ask for information to determine if the decrease was due to a parent trying to minimize his or her child support obligation.
When Courts Impute Income
If the court finds that the parent ordered to pay child support voluntarily quit work or deliberately lowered their income, the court may decide to ignore that change and use the most recent amount ($75,000 in our example) they were earning. The order for child support would then be based on that figure. California family courts look at three main factors when determining if income imputation is called for:
- The ability of the unemployed or underemployed parent to earn income.
- The opportunity for the unemployed or underemployed parent to earn income.
- The willingness of the unemployed or underemployed parent to earn income.
If the court finds the parent has a legitimate case of job loss or pay reduction, it will not necessarily or immediately impute income to him or her.
How Do Courts Arrive at an Imputed Income Amount?
Courts look to a parent’s “earning capacity” when deciding how much income to impute:
- Willingness to work is decided by looking at whether the parent is looking for a job, sending out his or her resume, or going for job interviews.
- Opportunity to work looks at what, if any, appropriate jobs are available in the area.
- Ability is usually determined by looking at a parent’s educational level, works skills, and employment history.
As evidence of a parent’s ability and opportunity to work, the court will look at various evidence.For example, it may use a vocational expert’s report or testimony and/or the most recent salary the parent was earning. If the court cannot arrive at an amount using these methods, it may impute minimum wage.
If you’re divorcing and believe your spouse should be imputed income for the purposes of child support, you may want to consult with an experienced and qualified California family law attorney to help you better understand your options.