Wisconsin has adopted federal guidelines that govern child support determinations. These guidelines base child support calculations primarily on the variables of parental income and child placement schedule, though if one parent has physical placement of the child less than 25% of the time, child support is based solely on the payer’s income. In addition to the parents’ income and the physical placement schedule, other factors may affect child support under the guidelines, such as a parent’s earning capacity or a child’s receipt of social security benefits. The guidelines also provide optional provisions that can be used to establish child support in high-income and low-income cases.
These guidelines are codified in the Wisconsin Administrative Code at Department of Children and Families Chapter 150, and are implemented through Wisconsin state statutes at 767.501 - 767.59.
Courts are permitted to depart from support calculated pursuant to these guidelines on the basis of long list of statutory factors such as the cost of child care, the cost of travel to exercise child placement, and the child’s educational and medical needs. An infrequently used provision of the statutes allows the court to order that a portion of child support be placed in a trust for the child’s future educational or other needs; first the court must make a finding that the child support recipient is unable or unwilling to use the child support funds wisely.
The federal child support guidelines have brought significant consistency to child support determinations, but they have not eliminated child support litigation; our office is frequently involved in litigation concerning child support issues. Through formal discovery and other means, we obtain the information necessary for an accurate determination of parental income. As the parents’ financial circumstances change over time, we represent parents seeking a change in child support, often reaching a settlement with the other parent but finding resolution in court when necessary. We have the tools to investigate hidden sources of income and analyze income from investments and from self-employment. Where necessary we can help establish that a self-employed person is hiding income; in other circumstances, we can help the self-employed person show their true income when the other parent is making exaggerated claims regarding the self-employment income.
When a parent has an obligation to support a child – even a child support recipient in a shared-placement arrangement – the parent must support the child based on the parent’s ability to earn income. If the parent is under-employed or voluntarily unemployed, the court has authority to base child support on the income the parent would be able to earn based on the parent’s education, training, and recent work experience. The Child Support Guidelines (DCF 150.02(14)) allow the court to impute income to a parent based on the parent’s earning capacity. The court can order a parent to look for employment. See Wis. Stats. Sec. 767.55.
The court can also impute income based on unproductive assets when a parent has invested in substantial assets or diverted income into assets that are not productive. See DCF 150.02(15). For example, if a parent invests in a second home, the court may find that asset to be unproductive and impute income from it.