When a North Carolina court determines the child support obligations of a parent, the judge must rely on Child Support Guidelines adopted by the Conference of Chief District Judges. These Guidelines create a “rebuttable presumption” in any legal proceeding involving child support, including divorce and domestic violence cases. The Guidelines do not apply to proceedings involving secondary support obligations, such as those of a stepparent or agency. If the parents previously signed a separation agreement, that agreement, rather than the Guidelines, will govern the court’s determination of support obligations.
While the Guidelines provide a starting point for determining child support, a judge may deviate from them if, following an evidentiary hearing, he determines that the “reasonable needs” of the child justify an upward or downward departure. If the court does deviate from the Guidelines, the judge must issue a written explanation stating the reasons for the deviation. No such explanation is necessary if the court does not deviate from the Guidelines, as any such award of child support is “conclusively presumed” to adequately to meet the child’s needs.
The Guidelines set a minimum support amount of $50 per month for a single parent with an adjusted gross income below $999 per month. The Guidelines thereafter establish support amounts for combined parental incomes up to $25,000 per month ($2,059/month for one child); above that, the court sets child support amounts at its discretion based on the reasonable needs of the child.
Overall, the Guidelines follow a model developed by the federal government to ensure both parents contribute towards the child’s needs. This model provides a child receive “the same proportion of parental income he or she would have received if the child’s parents lived together.” The model, and the Guidelines, use economic data to estimate total household spending for a child under the age of 18. The Guidelines then calculate a Schedule of Basic Child Support Obligations that convert net income to gross income by using federal and state tax rates.
Gross income includes income from all sources except for welfare benefits; support payments other then the child at issue; and employer contributions (not withheld from the parents’ wages) towards future Social Security, Medicare, or third parties for health and other benefits. If either parent has remarried, the new spouse’s income does not count towards the calculation of gross income.
If a parent is voluntarily unemployed, the court may calculate child support under the Guidelines based on potential income. This does not apply if the parent is physically or mentally unable to work or the child is under the age of three and the parent stays at home to care for him or her.
Child care, health insurance and health care costs are not counted as part of the basic child support obligation, but rather calculated separately and added to the basic obligation.The court may further add to the basic obligation to provide for extraordinary expenses like special or private schooling and transportation of the child between the parents’ homes.