Tennessee Child Support Laws
Tennessee child support law plays an essential role in all child custody and parenting time proceedings. For this reason, every parent going through a divorce or break-up should consult with an experienced family lawyer to learn how child support works in Tennessee.
Ordering a Tennessee parent to pay child support begins with application of the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. But before child support calculations can be made, parents must complete Tennessee Child Support Worksheets disclosing their income from all sources. With data from the child support worksheets, Tennessee attorneys and judges interpret both child support law and guidelines to establish how much money a parent should pay to support and maintain each child. Details matter.
Every Tennessee divorce, paternity establishment lawsuit, annulment, complaint for separate maintenance, and legal separation involving a minor child will raise the legal question of parental child support obligations. Although both parents share financial responsibility for supporting their offspring and adopted children, with very few exceptions, one parent will be ordered to pay Tennessee child support to the other parent. Child support should not be used in retribution or to punish either parent, however.
Applying Tennessee child support law to the unique facts and circumstances of a family’s case can be a complicated process. Separated parents, married or unmarried, need to be ready for this. Things can happen quickly, as when there is a need for temporary child support orders while the case is pending (with permanent orders to follow).
Deciding what is in their children’s best interests is challenging for parents – emotionally, intellectually, and financially. Prepare yourself. If you are considering divorce, contact us so we can help by sending you our free e-Book: Your First Steps: 7 Steps Planning Your Tennessee Divorce.
What Is Tennessee Child Support?
Child support is one parent’s obligation to pay the other parent for the support and maintenance of their child, pursuant to a court order. “What is child support?” is a simple question to answer, yes. But application of Tennessee child support law to an individual case is not so clear cut.
Our state’s child support guidelines (discussed below) are meant to provide for many different circumstances. No two families, just as no two children, are alike. Parental income varies. The number of children in the household varies. The educational needs, special needs, medical and healthcare needs of children vary, too. A parent’s disability might also necessitate additional caregiver costs. While many factors need consideration, be mindful that the judge has limited discretion to deviate from the guidelines. Arguably, the more complicated the determination, the more fair the result because child support is tailored to a particular family’s needs.
Duty to Support a Tennessee Child.
Every child support case begins with the parents’ legal obligation to support their child. Under Tennessee law, both parents are equally and jointly responsible for their minor child’s “care, nurture, welfare, education and support.” Furthermore, the duty to support a biological or legally adopted son or daughter continues until that child’s eighteenth birthday, or until the child’s high school class graduates if a 19-year-old. T.C.A. § 34-1-102.
In a child support order, two parties are named: the Primary Residential Parent (PRP) who receives child support; and an Alternate Residential Parent (ARP) who pays child support. The PRP is also referred to as the “obligee”; and the PRP the “obligor.”
There are exceptions to any situation, so always consult an experienced Tennessee attorney as early as possible. In special circumstances, for example, support could be ordered into adulthood because of the child’s severe mental or physical disability. T.C.A. § 36-5-101(k)(2).When support for an adult child is ordered based upon handicap or disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), then it could continue indefinitely. 42 U.S.C. § 12102.
What Are Tennessee Child Support Guidelines?
Whenever child custody is at issue in the family law case, so is child support. The first question a client is likely to ask a family lawyer is “How much?” Tennessee child support is required by law. Because our state follows the income shares model for its Tennessee Child Support Guidelines, both parents’ earnings and income from all sources are included when calculating child support.
There is a reason why we have very specific child support guidelines in this state. The guidelines are rules promulgated by Tennessee’s Department of Human Services (DHS) pursuant to state legislation found in T.C.A. § 36-5-101(e), T.C.A. §§ 71-1-105(15) and 71-1-132. Our state statute stems from a federal mandate under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act and is tied to federal funding for public health and welfare. 42 U.S.C. § 667. Title IV-D required that all states create standards for initial child support orders, modifications, and related matters. The bottom line is that, in Tennessee, these guidelines are set forth in DHS Rule 1240-2-4.
Updated every two years or so, the guidelines are implemented with specificity, not mere generality. Among important considerations are the number of nights a child is to spend with each parent and key expenses, such as health insurance. Always double check to make sure you are reading the most current guidelines. Get answers to your child support questions – with FAQs and informative videos presented by Memphis, TN, family lawyer Miles Mason, Sr. – by visiting Tennessee Child Support Law Answers to FAQs.
With parents having equal responsibility for supporting a child, their respective incomes must be included in approved worksheets for calculating child support. The other major variable is the number of parenting days each Tennessee child spends with the parents.
Tennessee Child Support Worksheets
In Tennessee, parents and their family attorneys use the Child Support Worksheets to calculate all child support obligations. Every family’s circumstances are unique. Exceptions may apply to one situation, yet not to another. Therefore, always seek legal advice from an experienced Tennessee family lawyer.
Making decisions about parenting time and completing the child support worksheets is much easier if you have some direction. A guidebook with many actual examples of what other parents have opted to do for their families. Make your job easier by obtaining a copy of Tennessee Parenting Plans and Child Support Worksheets: Building a Constructive Future for Your Family. As Miles Mason, Sr., says in his book, “Divorcing parents can train…” This is a big event, so start your training today
Understanding Tennessee’s Child Support Statute
Tennessee’s child support statute is somewhat lengthy. We have broken it down into a few digestible segments to better explain key aspects of this legislation.
The guidelines set the basic child support obligation (BCSO), an amount arrived at by completing the worksheets. This BCSO is presumptively the minimum amount needed for support and maintenance of the child. However, the judge does have limited discretion to increase the amount beyond the BCSO when in the best interests of the child or when the parents’ circumstances so require.
The statute begins by granting the Tennessee court jurisdiction to enter an order for future support and maintenance of a child in a divorce or decree of separation. Such jurisdiction is continuing, which gives the court authority to modify orders later on. T.C.A. § 36-5-101.
These are some of Tennessee’s child support statute’s core provisions (but remember there may be exceptions that may apply to your particular situation):
- The guidelines are presumed to apply in all child support cases, but the presumption is rebuttable with sufficiently credible evidence;
- Support can be paid from the parent’s income or property, including a pension or retirement account;
- Temporary support (pendente lite support) may be ordered during pendency of the lawsuit, even before the parenting plan is complete and legal custody is awarded;
- Support payments may be made to the Primary Residential Parent (PRP) directly, to the court clerk, or to the central collection and disbursement unit, typically through an income withholding order or wage assignment under the far-reaching auspices of T.C.A. § 36-5-501;
- The court may deviate from strict application of the guidelines if evidence justifies a variance (that is, applying the guidelines would be “unjust or inappropriate”);
- When the ARP’s monthly net income is over $10,000, the burden shifts to the PRP to prove that additional support is reasonably necessary, in excess of the Tennessee guidelines;
- Retroactive support may be awarded back to birth if initial setting, or from the date the parents separated or divorced (some of the factors considered are abandonment, domestic violence, child abuse, and child neglect), or date of filing of an action for modification;
- The ARP’s legal obligation to support his or her other children (and who are being supported) should be taken into consideration in the current calculation and may justify deviation from the guidelines;
- Not only is a child support order enforceable as a judgment in Tennessee and elsewhere, arrears accrue 12% interest per year “from the date of the arrearage”;
- Interest that accumulates on arrears is also child support;
- Once a payment is 30 days late, a summons may issue from the bench. Bond may also be required to secure payment (minimum $250 bond up to the total amount in arrears);
- Unless the judge orders otherwise, child support arrearages and unpaid court costs survive the child’s majority;
- Support orders may be modified later if necessary (for instance, when one child graduates from high school, but another supported child under the order is still a minor);
- Subject to arrearages or unpaid court costs, the ARP may file a motion to terminate child support when the last child turns age 18 or graduates with his or her regularly scheduled class, whichever occurs second;
- Either or both parents may be ordered to provide health insurance covering the child; and
- One or both parents may be ordered to carry life insurance designating the child as “beneficiary.”
This is merely an overview of Tennessee’s primary child support statute, but you can see already that honing in on a reasonable and proper amount of support requires careful planning. Being cognizant of child support law will serve you well. Circumstances vary widely from one case to the next and judges do interpret the laws differently. Always consult your lawyer.
In Tennessee, How Much Child Support Is Enough?
First, the three most important variables influencing the amount of child support a parent will provide are: the income of the mother; the income of the father; and the number of parenting days. Second, the guidelines formula includes adjustments for health insurance premiums and work-related child care. Third, at this point the parent should look for any specific “add ons” for additional expenses, such as tutoring and extra-curricular expenses if those meet the minimum 7% threshold. Remember that the judge has limited discretion to deviate from the guidelines. Evidence will be needed to justify these special expenses.
If the add ons amount to less than 7%, then the judge should not consider deviating from the guidelines. But if special expenses exceed 7%, then an increase from the basic child support obligation may be ordered. (What special expenses could be included? Read more about add ons and Special Expenses in Tennessee Child Support Law.)
Lastly, under certain circumstances, adjustments to the amount may be made for other children in the home (but not step-children).
What Is Income Under the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines?
If money is coming in, then it is probably considered gross income under the Tennessee child support guidelines. Tax law does not matter. For Tennessee child support, income can include amounts not listed on federal or state income tax returns, such as interest on municipal bonds. Although not comprehensive (and certainly not a substitute for legal advice from an experienced attorney), use this checklist of income sources for calculating support obligations:
- Earned Income: Wages, salaries, commissions, fees, tips, overtime pay, severance pay, bonuses, and fringe benefits. What happens if a parent is found to be voluntarily unemployed or underemployed? The judge may impute income to that parent.
- Alimony: Support received in the form of alimony, spousal support, or maintenance from an obligor who is not a party to this case.
- Capital Gains: Profit realized on the sale of capital investments or real estate holdings.
- Self-Employment Income: Money paid to self-employed individuals, independent contractors, partners, and owner-operated companies (sole proprietors and “Mom and Pop Shops”).
- Business Income: Corporation retained-earnings (not paid as dividends to shareholders, but reinvested in the company and added to shareholder equity).
- Rental Income: Rents and profits from land (including mineral, oil, or gas leases), and rents from residential or commercial real estate leases.
- Unemployment and Disability Income: Unemployment, Social Security disability insurance benefits, workers’ compensation, and VA disability.
- Investment Income: Investment interest on bank deposits, trust accounts, annuities, and dividends on company stock.
- Judgments: A judgment for damages awarded in a personal injury or other civil lawsuit.
- Retirement Income: Employee pensions, military pensions and retirement funds, individual retirement arrangements (IRA), railroad retirement board payments, Social Security, and mandatory withdrawals from retirement accounts.
- Winnings and Prizes: Gambling profits, lottery winnings, and prize winnings.
- Gifts: Cash or liquid assets gifted to the parent, including inheritances.
- Windfalls: Unexpected profits that just happen.
(See Rule 1240-2-4-.04(3) of the guidelines.)
Do be mindful that earnings need not be in received in cash. The guidelines include as income that which is received in kind, in trade, or as perquisites (“perks”).
Many items on this list could trip-up the unprepared parent. In part, this is because “income” for child support is sometimes also “property” under Tennessee divorce law. For example, an IRA is clearly income under the guidelines, but if funded during the marriage it is marital property, too. As a marital asset, the IRA must be equitably divided in divorce, but that does not change its character as income for purposes of child support obligations.
Consider an inheritance which is the separate property of the parent who received it as heir or devisee. Income from an inheritance, too, must be included as income in the child support worksheet. Confusing? Yes it can be. Don’t throw your hands up in frustration. Rest assured, these laws are routinely harmonized by attorneys for the best possible outcome. Talk to your family lawyer about your concerns.
What Is Not Income Under the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines?
With so many items included as income, you may be wondering if there is anything that is not considered income under the guidelines. Indeed, there are specific exclusions from gross income, as follows:
- Other Child Support Payments: Child support payments to a parent for a son or daughter from “another relationship” are excluded from income, as with a previous marriage and support from a former spouse;
- Public Assistance: Food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and similar programs, Social Security (SSI or SSDI), Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), are all excluded;
- Adoption Assistance: Most subsidies received for adoption assistance are excluded; and
- Child’s Income: The subject child’s income, from any source, is excluded from the parents’ income.
All of the exclusions noted above protect “means-tested benefits” for low income families. If exclusions are possible in your case, take a closer look at Rule 1240-2-4-.04(3) of the guidelines.
When filling out preliminary child support worksheets, parents should keep the guidelines handy as a reference. If any disclosure of financial information is troubling or needs further explanation, ask your experienced Tennessee child support attorney for legal advice on how best to proceed.
Hand-in-Hand: Tennessee Parenting Plans and Child Support
You should also consider how parenting plans can affect child support obligations. For most couples, preparing a parenting plan that works for them and for their child is seldom an easy task, but it is a necessary one under Tennessee child custody law. Briefly, the parenting plan is a document detailing the parenting schedule that both parents have agreed to.
The nexus between a parenting plan and child support comes in the form of parenting time. How much parenting time a parent has can make a difference in support obligations. Because the guidelines incorporate how much time each parent has the child with him or her, parenting time could raise or lower the amount of support a parent might otherwise be ordered to pay.
More specifically, the child support percentage will be increased if the ARP (the obligor) spends 69 days or less with the child. The percentage will be reduced if the ARP spends 92 days or more with the child. This can create a financial incentive for the parents to seriously negotiate parenting time with assistance from their lawyers.
To further explore the impact parenting plans have on child support, review our discussion on the Tennessee Parenting Plan, Primary Residential Parent & Divorce Law.
Tennessee Paternity Establishment – Un Wed Parents
Establishing paternity in Tennessee is establishing fatherhood. With paternity established between un wed parents, the father has parental rights (including the right to custody and parenting time) enforceable along with his parental obligation to provide child support. The Tennessee child support guidelines make no distinction between married and unmarried parents. The rules and worksheets apply equally to all Tennessee parents in family law proceedings.
Presumption of Parentage.
Between spouses, the husband is presumed to be the father of a child born to them during the marriage and in the 300 days following their divorce. In most instances, the presumption of parentage is a rebuttable one. Challenging parentage in court means overcoming the presumption by a preponderance of the evidence, the requisite standard of proof. T.C.A. § 36-2-304.
Between unwed parents, the man who voluntarily acknowledges the child as his offspring has a duty to support that child right along with the mother. Acknowledging parentage includes the man’s act of bringing a child into his home while openly holding that child out to be his son or daughter. Parents may sign a written voluntary acknowledgement of paternity (VAP) agreeing that he is the father of her baby. Scientific genetic testing with a 95% probability of parentage or greater will also establish paternity (unless there is an exclusion). T.C.A. § 24-7-113.
Signing any VAP without DNA evidence to scientifically establish paternity is always risky. Allow time for DNA testing to substantiate parentage and its attendant rights and responsibilities. Before signing any legally binding documents such as these, always seek legal advice from your Tennessee child support attorney.
People do change their minds. Either party may rescind the VAP in writing within 60 days of its execution. However, if two months slip by with no rescission forthcoming, then the only option is to file a petition to disestablish paternity. Such a petition must allege fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact as its legal basis. The judge should order DNA testing to make a final determination one way or the other. The man who violates the judge’s order by refusing to submit to DNA testing may find himself in contempt of court and, possibly, in jail until he complies.
Is paternity establishment an issue in your child support case? Women who need representation in obtaining a paternity test, as well as men asked to take a paternity test, should discuss legal options with their Tennessee family lawyer. Child support will be ordered from birth until the child’s majority, possibly longer. An expensive proposition for the obligor who is not the child’s biological father.
Modification of Tennessee Child Support Orders
Child support orders may be modified under Tennessee law, but only in limited circumstances. When a Tennessee parent relocates the child to another state to be with a new spouse, for instance, a change in child support may accompany the modified child custody orders allowing the move. If the amount of child support is inadequate, excessive, or if the child’s situation has changed (perhaps needing mental health counseling), then either parent may ask the court to modify the amount of support. Child support cannot be modified retroactively, however.
Significant Variance Under Tennessee Child Support Law
As noted earlier, the Tennessee courts have continuing jurisdiction over child support. This allows the judge’s initial support order to be modified for cause when there is a significant variance, at least a 15% change, between the current order and the proponent’s proposed order for more or less support. (At least a 7.5% change for low income parents.) Just as with the initial determination, completed child support worksheets are a necessary component of any request to modify. How to go about asking the court to modify child support is discussed in Tennessee Child Support Modification Law | How to Modify Child Support.
Modified Prospectively, Not Retroactively.
Should the PRP petition the court for increased child support or, in the alternative, the ARP seeks a reduction in the amount of support (as in the example below), then the judge may so order.
However, if the court does modify the initial order by increasing or decreasing the support amount, the change will not be effective retroactively. At the earliest, the court has discretion to set the new support order to the date the petition to modify support was filed – prospectively.
Consider this example: Adam, a divorced father from Germantown, TN, with two young children, is seriously injured on January 1st and unable to continue working. His application for SSDI was initially denied and his SSA appeal is pending. Unable to make his regularly-scheduled monthly child support payment for January 15th, February 15th, and March 15th, he then consults with his lawyer. On April 1st the lawyer files Adam’s motion to modify child support with the Shelby County Circuit Court clerk and a hearing is set. Evidence at the hearing supports significant variance. The judge orders a reduction in child support effective April 1, the earliest possible date. However, Adam owes child support arrearages for January, February, and March. He’ll also pay interest on those sums until paid. Monthly installment payments may be set.
Interest on Arrearages.
Do not delay filing your request to modify support until child care expenses are out of control or until support payments are months in arrears. Whether seeking an increase or a reduction, file a motion to modify child support as soon as possible.
When payments are too much for the ARP to manage, for whatever reason, Tennessee child support arrears can spiral out of control. Simple interest is 12% on child support arrearages. Consequently, arrearages-plus-interest add up fast! See a lawyer before the situation gets away from you.
Non Payment – Enforcing Tennessee Child Support Orders
Sometimes an obligor-parent will deliberately attempt to avoid paying child support, hiding-out somewhere in Tennessee or leaving the state altogether. This can always be a very serious non payment problem. Parents ordered to pay child support in one state might simply leave and take up residence in a different state.
To make interstate enforcement of child support orders easier, Tennessee passed a law giving its courts jurisdictional authority to reach out and touch the non-resident obligor. The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) gives Tennessee long-arm jurisdiction to “establish, enforce, or modify a child support order or to determine parentage” over a nonresident parent. T.C.A. § 36-5-2201.
In conjunction with the UIFSA, the Federal Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act (FFCCSOA) was passed by the U.S. Congress to facilitate child support enforcement, to avoid jurisdictional conflict between the various states, and to improve financial stability for families, among other things. 28 U.S.C. § 1738B.
Some parents suffer under the misconception that child support orders are inconsequential. Or that it is entirely the other parent’s responsibility to pursue collection. Yes, the PRP can seek enforcement of a child support order by filing a contempt action against the non-paying parent. But if the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) provided assistance, then DHS can enforce the support order as well. To locate a non-custodial parent, the DHS searches drivers’ license records, employment and unemployment records, criminal records, vital records, and TennCare health records automatically. DHS also accesses the Federal Parent Locator Service, National Directory of New Hire, and Federal Case Registry (national child support directory).
Are you worried about child support enforcement? For more details on arrearages, interest, and related enforcement issues, check out Child Support Enforcement & Collection in Tennessee Family Law FAQs.
Building a foundation for your legal strategy need not be a daunting task. Prepare yourself by studying key concepts, watching our informational videos, and visiting our website. Pick up The Tennessee Divorce Client’s Handbook: What Every Divorcing Spouse Needs to Know, available on Amazon and Kindle. In this book, attorney Miles Mason, Sr., covers child custody and child support in family law, along with property division, alimony, mediation, court proceedings, and more.
Resources, References and More:
- Tennessee Child Support Answers to FAQs
- How to Modify Tennessee Child Support
- Tennessee Department of Human Resources – Child Support Enforcement Services – Child Support Payment System Login Page
- Tennessee Child Support Handbook
- Child Support Guidelines | Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts
- Shelby County Child Support Services Division – Memphis, Tennessee
- Leading Child Support National Book and Site by Laura Morgan
- Child Support Guideline Models by State
- Tennessee Child Support Guidelines Note: Always check to see if this is the most current version.
- Tennessee Child Support Guidelines
- Top 6 Tennessee Child Support Strategies
- Tennessee Child Support Resources
For more in-depth commentary, analysis, current updates, and Tennessee case law summaries about Tennessee child support laws and specific provisions within the Tennessee child support guidelines, view our Tennessee Child Support section of our MemphisDivorce.com Tennessee Family Law Blog.