Your Guide to Child Support

January 19, 2024

A common question in child custody disputes is child support. The legal framework concerning child support is not overly complicated. However, each child custody case presents different fact patterns. This blog is how I explain child support to clients.

Step 1 – What is your custody schedule?

The reason I encourage people to figure out their custody schedule first is because child support follows placement. If you figure out what you want to pay first, then try and get your placement to match that payment, you likely are not motivated to do what is right by your child. So, my thinking has always been, let’s get a placement agreement and then we will talk about child support after.

Step 2 – What are the parents’ incomes?

Some incomes are simple such as a flat salary without any bonuses. Other scenarios are more complicated. For example, some people earn regular commissions that vary greatly month-to-month. Other people receive annual bonuses that are significantly different year-to-year. Self-employed people often deduct routine expenses to reduce their tax obligations. Often times, there is a dispute as to whether these expenses should be added to the owner’s income that is on their filed tax return.

Step 3 – Do the parents agree on payment?

Sometimes, parents will sit down, look at incomes, look at their children’s needs and decide what amount of support is appropriate. Other times, parents will make exchanges like, “You don’t need to pay for child support, just cover daycare and extracurricular fees.” More often than not, courts will honor these agreements if public benefits are not involved (see below). However, these agreements need to be carefully drafted and explained to the court.

Step 4 – Are there public benefits involved?

Even if parents can come to an agreement, these agreements may not be honored by the court if public benefits are involved. When public benefits are involved, the State of Wisconsin, specifically the Child Support Agency, becomes an interested party in the case. The State of Wisconsin represents the taxpayers. Their objective is to give the parent receiving public benefits child support payments (if they would be due a child support payment) to assist the child in his/her needs. The most common public benefit is BadgerCare. This means that a parent receiving a public benefit will have an ally to receive a child support payment, but also if two parents agree on a payment, the State of Wisconsin will also need to agree.

Step 5 – By law, what should the child support payment be?

Primary Placement
Child support payments follow your custody schedule, number of children, and incomes. If one parent has placement for less than 92 nights per year, the child support equation typically only looks at that person’s income. For example, Joe works nights and is unable to have his two kids frequently. He has the children 50 overnights per year and makes $50,000 gross. Because he has two kids, the standard percentage is 25% of his gross income, or $12,500 annually, or $1,041.66 monthly.

Shared Placement
When parents have custody for 92 or more overnights a year, the child support formula factors in both incomes. Again, the amount varies based on the number of children and number of overnights.

50/50 Custody
When people have 50/50 custody, meaning both parents have custody 182.5 overnights per year, and if the parents do not agree on a child support amount, there will still be a child support payment unless their incomes are very close to equal. It is a myth that 50/50 custody = no child support.

While I am not here to defend laws, here is why; Joe makes $150,000 selling PS5s door-to-door. Cindy makes $35,000 serving tables at a diner. A real good diner at that. Great pancakes served with a coffee and a smile. For the children’s needs to be met at Cindy’s house, she will likely need a child support payment.

If you are looking for an estimate on your child support payment, I have included a link at the end of this article.

Step 6 – Is there a basis to deviate upward or downward from this amount?

Even after these five steps, there can be some wiggle room. While it is not common, the laws allow for either side to argue for a higher or lower amount of child support. These laws exist, but the truth is, courts almost always follow the state guidelines for child support.

Other Unique Scenarios

Split Placement Child Support – a different formula exists when people have more than one child, and the children spend different number of nights at each house. While rare, there is a formula for this scenario.

Serial Payer Child Support – some people have an existing child support order and a new order is being enter. This affects the available income for child support and has its own formula.

High Income Earners – When the child support payor earns above a certain threshold, the percentage they pay is lowered after that threshold is met. This is a tiered approach, meaning the higher tier you reach, the percentage you pay is reduced.


You will find many child support calculators online, but the best and most thorough is from the Child Support Agency itself. That can be found here:

Thanks for reading this article, if you have any questions about child support, let’s talk.

*While the legal definition of child custody relates to decision making, I have used child custody to refer to overnights. This is because most people use “child custody” when referring to overnight placement.