If you’re involved in a Tennessee child support case, there are several legal issues you’ll encounter from start to finish. Here’s what you need to know.
- What is the Legal Obligation to Support a Tennessee Child?
- What are Tennessee Child Support Guidelines?
- Deviating From the Tennessee Guidelines
- Is Health Insurance Required as Part of Child Support?
- How Do I Legally Establish Paternity?
- What are My Legal Options for Enforcing a Child Support Order?
- Tennessee Child Support FAQs
What is the Legal Obligation to Support a Child in Tennessee?
According to Tennessee Code Title 36, Chapter 5, every child support case begins with the parent’s legal obligation to support their child. Both parents are equally and jointly responsible for their minor child’s “care, nurture, welfare, education, and support.”
This duty to support a biological or legally adopted son or daughter continues until that child’s 18th birthday or until the child’s high school class graduates if a 19-year-old. It could continue indefinitely when support for an adult child is ordered based on a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
In a child support order, the Primary Residential Parent (PRP) receives child support, and an Alternate Residential Parent (ARP) pays child support. The PRP is also referred to as the “obligee,” and the PRP is the “obligor.”
Tennessee Child Support Guidelines
Tennessee follows the Income Shares Model for its Tennessee Child Support Guidelines. The income shares model uses net income and the number of overnights a child has with each parent as primary determining factors to arrive at a basic support amount.
The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines are rules administered by the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) according to state legislation found in T.C.A. § 36-5-101(e), T.C.A. §§ 71-1-105(15) and 71-1-132.
Parents and their divorce attorneys use the Child Support Worksheets for calculating child support obligations. The completed child support worksheet must be submitted to the court.
You can find our online Tennessee child support calculator here. This is a quick and easy way to estimate your child support payments.
Tennessee’s child support guidelines set the basic child support obligation (BCSO), determined by completing the worksheets. This BCSO is presumptively the minimum amount needed for support and maintenance of the child. However, the judge has limited discretion to increase the amount beyond the BCSO when in the child’s best interests or when the parents’ circumstances so require.
Support payments can be made directly to the PRP, the court clerk, or the central collection and disbursement unit, typically through an income withholding order or wage assignment.
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, more than the Tennessee guidelines.
In addition, retroactive support may be awarded back to birth, from the date the parents separated or divorced or the date of filing for a modification.
Circumstances vary widely from one case to the next, and judges interpret Tennessee child support laws differently, so these guidelines may not fully come into play depending on your case.
Read More: How to File For Divorce in Tennessee
Deviating From the Tennessee Guidelines
A judge will start by presuming that the amount calculated under the guidelines with parenting time and allowed expenses adjustments is the proper amount in any case.
Sometimes this amount may be unfair, and a judge may order an amount of child support different from the guideline amount with ample supporting evidence or if a different amount would be in the child’s best interests.
Some examples of circumstances that might warrant a deviation might include:
- A parent incurs substantial expense because of the distance involved in exercising parenting time.
- The parents have to pay extraordinary education expenses for the child, including tuition, room and board, books, and lab fees. This may apply to private school tuition or children with special needs.
- Parents might have to pay other expenses for summer camp, music or art lessons, or school-sponsored extracurricular activities, which are meant to enhance a child’s athletic, cultural, or social development.
- The parents face extreme financial hardship, such as when a child has extraordinary medical needs that aren’t covered by insurance.
Imputing income means assigning an income when reliable evidence of income is not available.
Imputed income is often applied when a supporting parent is willfully and voluntarily unemployed or underemployed.
Potential income is determined by the parent’s educational level and previous work experience.
Leaving a job just to reduce hours or to make less money intentionally, motivated by a desire to pay less child support, is not looked upon favorably by the judge.
Parenting Time Adjustment
Except as applied to equal parenting situations, the adjustment is based upon the Alternative Residential Parent’s number of days of parenting time with the children. Only one parent can take credit for parenting time in one 24-hour period.
Suppose the ARP spends 92 days or more per calendar year with a child. In that case, an assumption is made that the ARP is spending more on the child during parenting time for food and other child-rearing expenses (for items that usually are duplicated between the two households).
The ARP’s child support obligation may be reduced to account for these transferred and duplicated expenses using a mathematical formula called the “variable multiplier.”
Child Support and Health Insurance
The cost of medical and dental insurance premiums for the children and work-related childcare is included in the calculation for the support order. The parents must divide these expenses according to each parent’s Percentage Share of Income (PI). Every court order under Tennessee Child Support Guidelines must address these expenses.
Uninsured medical expenses are added to the Basic Child Support Obligation (BCSO). These expenses must be routinely incurred so that a specific monthly amount can be reasonably established and added to the BCSO.
These uninsured medical expenses may include:
- Other medical needs not covered by insurance.
The Guidelines also state:
Childcare expenses necessary for the parent’s employment, education, or vocational training that are determined by the tribunal to be appropriate and that are appropriate to the parent’s financial abilities and the lifestyle of the child if the parents and the child were living together, shall be averaged for a monthly amount and entered in the worksheet in the column of the parent initially paying the expense.
A child support order can also cover educational expenses for private or special schooling. Support can be used to address financial responsibility for “things [such] as music lessons, camps, travel, and other activities that may contribute to the child’s cultural, social, artistic, or athletic development” if they exceed seven percent of the Basic Child Support Obligation.
When Does Child Support Terminate in Tennessee?
A support obligation ends in Tennessee when the child reaches age 18 or the child graduates from high school with their regularly scheduled class, whichever comes later.
Child support can end earlier if the child becomes emancipated through marriage or quits school and gets a job. Conversely, child support may extend if the adult child is disabled or severely disabled.
Child support can continue into college, but only if the parents agree.
How to Modify a Child Support Order
It’s possible to modify child support orders only in limited circumstances. Either parent has the right to request changes.
You may request a modification in person at DHS headquarters or by calling (615) 313-4880.
A judge’s initial support order can be modified for cause when there is a significant variance of at least a 15% change between the current order and the requested proposed order for more or less support. That figure is adjusted to 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.
If there was a complete review of your case within the past two years, you’d need to provide information showing a change in circumstances. Relevant changes might include:
- either parent has a significant increase or decrease in income, such as from a job loss or change in employment, an inheritance, lottery winnings, or other sources
- a child supported by the order has become disabled
- either parent is supporting an additional child (under a legal obligation) who wasn’t included on the most recent credit worksheet
- either parent has qualified other children who were included on the last credit worksheet but who have since died or become emancipated, or
- the noncustodial parent is or will be incarcerated for at least 180 days.
If the court does modify the initial order by increasing or decreasing the support amount, the change is not effective retroactively. At the earliest, the court has the discretion to set the new support order to the date the modification petition was filed.
Enforcement of Tennessee Child Support Orders
Depending on the circumstances, the PRP may ask the court for several possible types of relief:
- Order that future child support and arrearages be paid through a wage assignment order
- Reduce the arrearage (amount owed) to judgment and be formally recorded in a court order
- Determine the arrearage payment amount to be paid monthly
- Reimburse the parent owed support for filing fees, court costs, and attorney’s fees for having to bring the petition to enforce child support
- Award 12% simple interest on unpaid child support
- Order the delinquent parent to pick up trash
- Revoke specific licenses issued by the State of Tennessee, including hunting and driving licenses
- Find the delinquent parent in civil or criminal contempt
- Order the parent to jail for some time or until a certain amount is paid
- Order the delinquent to serve jail time for willful failure to pay child support
To avoid paying, some 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, 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.
To locate a non-custodial parent, the DHS automatically searches driver’s license records, employment and unemployment records, criminal records, vital records, and TennCare health records. DHS also accesses the Federal Parent Locator Service, National Directory of New Hire, and Federal Case Registry, which is a national child support directory. If the Tennessee DHS provided assistance, then DHS can enforce the support order as well.
Establishing paternity in Tennessee is the process of proving that you are the father.
When paternity is established between unmarried parents, the father has enforceable parental rights (i.e., the right to custody and parenting time). He also has a legal obligation to provide child support.
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.
According to T.C.A. § 24-7-113, the man who voluntarily acknowledges a child as his offspring must support that child 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 can also sign a written voluntary acknowledgment of paternity (VAP) or use scientific genetic testing with a 95% probability of parentage or greater to establish paternity.
Either party can rescind the VAP in writing within 60 days of its execution or file a petition to disestablish paternity. The petition must allege fraud, duress, or material mistake of fact as its legal basis.
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.
Read More: Tennessee Divorce Guide
Tennessee Child Support FAQs
Which agency handles child support issues in Tennessee?
Tennessee’s child support statutes grant authority to the Tennessee Department of Human Services (DHS) to administer rules that determine child support calculations and procedures for child support cases. The DHS can also assist in locating the non-custodial parent, establishing child paternity, enforcing child support orders, reviewing and modifying support orders, and collecting child support arrears.
How do I ask for child support?
There are a couple of ways to apply for child support in Tennessee. In most cases, one parent will request child support when they file for divorce. You can also apply for child support online. To do so, you must first create a DHS account here, then download the application form.
As part of the application process, a complaint, petition, or motion must be filed with the court and be served on the other parent. This can be done as part of another legal proceeding such as a temporary support filing (including child support, alimony, and attorney’s fees) or the establishment of parentage. Each local court may require a particular legal formality or use of a specific form.
In many Tennessee courts, both parents may be required to complete a legal pleading signed under oath listing all monthly income and expenses. Depending upon the amount of income, the list of information and documentation could be minimal or extensive.
Is a court hearing required to decide child support in Tennessee?
If the parties reach an agreement on child support, complete the appropriate paperwork, and the court approves their settlement, then no formal court hearing is usually required.
Read More: A Beginner’s Guide to Divorce Mediation
Do I have to report my child support payments as taxable income on my federal income tax return? Is Tennessee child support taxed to the recipient?
No, so long as payments are made according to court-ordered child support.
For more information about taxation issues related to divorce and children, see the current version of IRS Publication 504: Divorced or Separated Individuals.
A parent receiving child support can agree to allow the parent paying support to claim the child dependency deduction, as long as all of the federal tax law requirements are met and the parent receiving support completes and signs IRS form 8332 to be included with the tax return.
Can I still enforce the child support judgment if my ex-spouse moves out of state?
With your court orders, you can go to the other state’s court to enforce the Tennessee child support order via a wage assignment. There is a federal process in place for interstate child support enforcement.
Do I still have to pay child support if I become unemployed?
If you have a child support order in place, you are required to make your child support payments until the order is modified. If you lose your job, your first step is to consult an attorney and file a petition with the court to modify the child support order. You may not need to go through a court process if you and the other parent agree on the child support modification.