Performance Improvement 1997. Evaluation of Child Support Guidelines



This study evaluated the implementation of State child support guidelines mandated by the Family Support Act of 1988. It concluded that States need to increase the consistency of guideline application, including income verification procedures, extended custody and visitation arrangements, and consideration of multiple family situations, health insurance, and day care expenses in the calculation of child support awards. Adoption of a standardized support order would improve documentation of departures from guideline award calculations. State reviews of guidelines could be more thorough if carried out with sufficient resources, case surveys, and analysis of the cost of raising children. The study did not recommend the adoption of a national child support guideline.


This evaluation explored three issues: how State child support guidelines are applied; the extent, amount, direction, and causes of deviations from State guideline award formulas; and how States account for special family circumstances in determining child support awards. Research focused on the process of applying guidelines; the extent, cause, and documentation of deviation from guideline formulas; the consideration of special family circumstances (such as child day care, health expenses, and multiple families) in adjusting awards; and actions taken as a result of the mandated guideline reviews prepared by the States.


In 1984, in order to ensure appropriate and equitable child support awards by courts and other decisionmakers, Congress required every State seeking Federal funding for public welfare programs to establish child support guidelines. These initial guidelines were only advisory. However, the Family Support Act of 1988 requires that the State guidelines be used in determining the proper amount of support. Deviation from the presumptive guideline amount of award requires written justification.

Several Federal requirements help States develop child support guidelines. These include need for uniformity within each State; use of numerical formulas that consider all of a payer's income and provide for health care needs; use of guidelines to determine rebuttable, presumptive award amounts in judicial or administrative proceedings; use of guidelines for subsequent award modification; application of guidelines to all cases; and consideration of the child's best interests in State criteria for deviating from a guideline. The Family Support Act also requires that States reevaluate their guidelines at least once every 4 years to ensure the appropriateness of child support awards. States are to consider the cost of raising children and to sample case data on deviations from the guidelines. States must review child support orders for cases handled by a State child support agency at least once every 3 years.


This evaluation employed various sources of data--child support case records, stakeholder interviews, analysis of State guideline review studies, analysis of the Current Population Survey (CPS), and an expert panel. A sample of case records was drawn from 2 counties in each of 11 States. Although not representative of all States, over 4,000 cases were selected to reflect diverse guideline model types and child support formulas. The study conducted 215 unstructured telephone interviews with State and local officials, parents, and other stakeholders to gain a real-life perspective of the overall operation of State guidelines. Case studies of child support guidelines in 20 States were analyzed to assess the review process and the extent of required documentation for deviation from the guideline award amount. Over 2,000 cases in the March-April Matched CPS file with established child support awards in 1992 were analyzed to determine if presumptive State guidelines affected child support award amounts. Finally, an expert panel was assembled to provide advice on the evaluation and to make recommendations based on study findings.


Analysis of sample case record data indicated that only 17 percent of cases involved deviations from the guideline award amount, although the percentage varied considerably across the counties of 11 States. The four most common reasons for deviation were (1) agreement between the parties; (2) second households or multiple families; (3) extensive or extraordinary visitation or custody expenses; and (4) low income of the payer. The majority involved downward deviations--the average award decreased 34 percent. The ordered amount of support differed from the calculated guideline amount of support in a significant percentage of cases. Differences were found both in cases that followed the guideline calculations and in deviation cases. However, reasons for these differences were not documented in the case records. The consistency of the guideline application varied considerably. While some factors (such as income and health care expenses) were considered in nearly all orders, the consideration of other factors (such as multiple families and child care expenses) was quite variable across counties and within the same State.

Unstructured interviews with decisionmakers and other stakeholders in 21 study counties found a consensus that child support issues involving the impact of multiple families and second marriages, income imputation, and support for postsecondary education required further investigation.

Examination of State guideline reviews indicated that only 20 States collected and analyzed case data. Fewer than half of the States consider economic data on the cost of raising children. The extent to which these States took action as result of the data is unclear. When a particular factor, such as multifamily situations, is mandated by a numerical formula in the guidelines, there generally is a more uniform and frequent consideration of that factor in child support actions by the award decisionmaker. Verification of parental income, which is important in calculating accurate child support, is not frequent across counties; parties are often not prepared with the proper forms at hearings. When health insurance was ordered for one or both of the parents, the cost was rarely included in the child support calculation in States that have a mandatory numerical adjustment for such costs. Child day care expenses were included in the child support calculations for the cases that mentioned these expenses. There was no clear consensus in State reviews about the provision of postsecondary education support. Tax exemptions are commonly allocated in a flexible and equitable manner. The States handle extended custody and visitation arrangements without consistency or equity. These arrangements were commonly used reasons for deviation in child support awards.

Analysis of CPS data indicated that support awards may have increased by a small amount after the shift from voluntary to presumptive guidelines in 1988. However, the demographic composition of custodial parents changed over the period and the income of the noncustodial parent was unavailable, preventing any definitive assessment of the impact of mandatory guidelines.

The panel of experts reached the following conclusions:

  1. No steps should be taken at this time to adopt a national child support guideline because States are still in an experimental phase.
  2. Presumptive State guidelines should continue, with emphasis on the conduct of required State guideline reviews every 4 years (in accordance with Federal regulations).
  3. The Federal Government should provide technical assistance and point out areas in the guideline review process for States to consider.

Use of Results

The findings and recommendations of this evaluation should benefit those States considering the revision or improved consistency of guidelines for awarding child support payments. Other States should be able to use this study to accelerate the implementation of guidelines, periodic case record reviews, and other related actions required by Federal regulations. Examples of specific State actions that can be taken on the basis of this study include (1) more consistent application of guidelines across cases; (2) improved case documentation of departures from the guideline award amount and reasons for the deviations; (3) improved independent verification of parental income; (4) adoption of a standardized support order to ensure that factors common to the majority of child support actions are addressed consistently; (5) use of a mandated numerical formula to adjust for various factors; and (6) coordination and consistency of policy within and between agencies and courts with regard to procedures and documentation.

Agency sponsor:

Office of Child Support Enforcement

Federal contact:

David Arnaudo
PIC ID: 5983

Performer organization:

CSR, Incorporated, Washington, DC