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The answer to this and most legal question is “it depends.” Though Texas law provides guidelines to suggest what percentage of an obligor’s income should go to child support (for example, if a parent is supporting one child, the guidelines suggest the obligor should pay 20% of his or her monthly net resources), the guidelines are just...well, guidelines. Courts may deviate from those percentages if evidence shows that the amount specified in the guidelines would be unjust or inappropriate.
To list just a few factors relevant to child support, a court may consider: the age and needs of the children, the resources available to both parents, the amount of time each parent has possession of and access to the children, necessary child care expenses, whether either parent has custody over other children, and how health care expenses are provided for. See Tex. Fam. Code § 154.123(b). Yet, even these factors can be vague. For example, what is a “need” of a child? Need has been interpreted by the Supreme Court of Texas to “include more than the bare necessities of life” but not be based on the child’s need to maintain a particular lifestyle. Rodriguez v. Rodriguez, 860 S.W.2d 414, 417 n.3 (Tex. 1993). Ultimately, the determination of child support comes down to what is in the child’s best interest, and the trial court may depart from the guidelines accordingly.
To illustrate a downward departure from the guidelines, in Dennis v. Smith, 962 S.W.2d 67, 68 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1997, pet. denied), the trial court found “good cause for not ordering either [parent] to pay money to the other.” No child support was ordered, but the parties were both ordered to provide the child with “clothing, food, shelter, medical care, and education.” Id. For two years—from the parties’ separation until their divorce—the parents had cooperated and made arrangements for their child’s care and education, “split[ting] things down the middle” without court ordered child support, and the child “has not suffered from a financial standpoint.” Id. at 73. The court found that by not ordering either party to pay child support, it had “promoted cooperation between the parties and benefited [the child].” Id. at 68.
On the opposite end, a departure upwards requiring a parent to pay more than the guidelines’ suggested percentage may occur if the parent is intentionally unemployed or underemployed. In Iliff v. Iliff, 339 S.W.3d 74 (Tex. 2011). In such cases, the guidelines may be applied to the obligor’s “earning potential.” Id. at 81. A determination that an obligor is intentionally unemployed or underemployed is a case-by-case determination and will consider factors such as why an obligor earns less than his or her potential (is the parent working fewer hours to spend more time with his or her children, for example) and an obligor’s job search. Id. at 82. “[T]he financial analysis will often not be the end of the court’s consideration.” Id.
While the guidelines provide parents with some certainty and indications of what to expect from child support payments, trial courts will not ignore the unique circumstances of each family. A parent’s child support obligation, like nearly all aspects of family court, will depend on what is in the best interest of the child.