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Imputation of income: Best interests of child finding required

When a couple gets divorced, courts must decide several issues in a case in which the couple has children, including child support, child custody and spousal support. Courts arrive at these decisions by applying the laws pertaining to each issue to the facts of the case. For instance, in arriving at a determination of how much child support a parent owes, the court looks at factors including the amount of time each parent spends with the child and each parent’s net monthly disposable income. A court may also impute income to a parent by looking at past work history, considering the parent’s education, physical condition and attempts to find work in his or her field, and taking into account what the employment market is.

Finding required to impute income

The National Conference of State Legislatures, in a publication entitled “Child Support 101,” discusses how a court can proceed as though a parent earns a certain income, even though the evidence suggests otherwise. In cases in which the court does not believe a parent’s testimony about his or her income or finds that a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed for the purpose of reducing his or her child support obligation, the court may impute income to that parent. In addition, if a parent does not appear in court to testify or present evidence as to income, the court may impute income to the parent in order to arrive at an initial child support order.

A recent appellate court decision emphasized another factor a court must consider before it can impute income to a parent: the best interests of the children. In the case, the mother had physical custody of the two children of the marriage 95 percent of the time. The father had a stable job and owned two rental homes from which he received monthly income. The mother was terminated from a high-paying position, and instead of seeking a similar job, she focused on a start-up business so that she could be home with her children more frequently. The trial court set an amount for child custody for the husband to pay to the wife each month. However, the court then imputed income to the wife, allegedly based on the job she didn’t seek in her original field of employment, and ordered her to pay spousal support to the husband, who had three sources of income and only five percent physical custody of the couple’s two children.

The appellate court found that the trial court had decided wrongly. The purpose of the California child support system is to place the children’s interests as a top priority. When a court imputes income to a custodial parent, money otherwise available for the support of the children is reduced. When a court imputes income to a custodial parent, it must find that doing so is in the best interests of the children of the marriage. Since the trial court did not make any findings as to the children’s best interests, the imputation of income was not valid.

Child support matters

If you are involved in a dispute over child support, contacting a family law attorney may help you protect your interests and those of your child. An attorney who is familiar with the California child support guidelines can discuss the factors the court will consider and how that will affect you.