Like most other states, North Carolina calculates child support based on a set of standard guidelines. The guidelines spell out how parents will share the cost of raising their children when they no longer live together. This means the guidelines apply equally to parents who separate or divorce and those who were never married in the first place.

While the guidelines are fairly straightforward, many parents need help understanding how they will apply to their unique situations. Only an experienced family law attorney can help you determine that, but here are some of the basics.

Underlying assumptions

First and foremost, North Carolina’s child support guidelines assume that children have a right to be supported by their parents. This means that parents cannot choose to forego their responsibility to provide financially for their children.

Secondly, the guidelines assume both parents will contribute to their children’s care using a “shared income” model. According to this model, the amount each parent contributes will be based proportionally on their individual income. The goal is to have each parent contribute the same amount they would have if parents had stayed together.

Other determining factors include the child’s specific needs and the general costs of raising a child in North Carolina, which is based on economic data from the Center for Policy Research and reviewed every four years.

Therefore, any final award should be able to meet both the child’s needs and each parent’s financial circumstances.

Understanding income

Because of the shared income model, the mathematical formula used by the guidelines starts with each parent’s gross annual income. The guidelines define “income” broadly. Income could include everything from actual wages, dividends and bonuses to self-employed income, in-kind payments, gifts or prize money, and regular “maintenance” from third parties like grandparents or relatives who provide housing or financial assistance for a single parent. Even one-time or irregular financial gifts can be included by averaging or prorating the amount over a specific time period.

Income does not include things like government assistance benefits, other child support payments received from a different family, or employer contributions made to medical, disability or retirement benefits.

Determining a child’s needs

Once income has been established, the guidelines then seek to ensure that the basic needs of the child will be met. It will ask parents to consider things like:

  • Child care costs: Most parents today work, so the cost of child care will need to be included and shared between parents, according to the guidelines. However, if one parent is unemployed, underemployed or seeking vocational training due to being a stay-at-home parent up until now, you may need to deviate from the guidelines when it comes to sharing child care costs.
  • Health insurance: In general, one of the parents must maintain health insurance (and possibly dental insurance) for the children if it is available at a reasonable cost through an employer or group health insurance plan. “Reasonable cost” generally means the cost does not exceed 5 percent of that parent’s gross annual income.
  • Extraneous health care costs: If your child has special or chronic health needs that exceed $250 per year, those costs may also be included in the child support calculation.
  • Extraordinary expenses: The same could be said for special education needs or the costs of transportation between the two homes. If the court determines that these expenses are necessary, reasonable and in the child’s best interests, it will include them in its child support calculation.
  • Your custody arrangement: While not a determining factor, the worksheets used to calculate child support differ depending on whether you have a primary custody, joint custody or split custody arrangement.

As with all things this technical, your lawyer can help you navigate North Carolina’s child support guidelines, including determining whether a deviation from them is warranted.