Written by: Ben Olson
Question: I am a college student with little or no income. Can I be ordered to pay child support?
Answer: The short answer is, “Yes.” But the outcome of your case will depend heavily on your specific situation. Read the discussion below to learn more.
Discussion: In Minnesota, Courts assume that parents are able to work full time. When a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed (i.e., they voluntarily quit their job or cut back their hours to attend college), Courts must use what is called “imputed” or “potential” income to determine child support. When Courts base child support on imputed or potential income, they assume that a parent can earn a certain amount of income, regardless of what that parent actually earns.
Imputed or potential income is calculated in three ways. The most common way to calculate potential income is by looking at a parent’s employment potential, recent earnings history, and qualifications. This method is used when a parent voluntarily quits his or her job or reduces his or her hours. In that scenario, the Court can base child support on income that the parent used to earn. For example, if a parent quit a job that paid a salary of $50,000 per year, the Court can assume that the parent can find a job paying a similar salary, even if the parent has no current income. The Court might also look to what other people with the same experience or degree earn in the community.
The other two ways of calculating imputed or potential income are used less often. One method is only used when a parent receives unemployment insurance or workers compensation. In that scenario, the Court must use the actual amount of the monthly benefit to determine potential income. The other method is used when no recent or reliable information about the parent’s income is available, or when the parent has no earning history (i.e., has never had a legitimate job). In that scenario, the Court must calculate potential income by multiplying the state or federal minimum wage (whichever is higher) by 30 to determine the parent’s gross weekly income. Weekly income is then translated into monthly income to calculate child support.
If a Court decides that a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, the Court must use imputed or potential income to determine child support. In other words, if a parent voluntarily reduces his or her income to attend college, the Court must base child support on imputed or potential income. And the Court must use one of the methods described above to determine what that potential income is. There are only two exceptions to this rule that apply to college students.
The first exception is when the parent’s unemployment or underemployment is “temporary and will ultimately lead to an increase in income.” Many people argue that attending college fits into this exception. After all, most college students are unemployed or underemployed while they attend school (they are not earning as much as they otherwise could be). That unemployment or underemployment is also temporary and designed to lead to an increase in income (once the parent finishes his or her degree, he or she will look for a full-time job that pays well). But Courts do not always agree.
Simply put, attending college is not always temporary. Many degrees take three to five years to complete. Some take much longer. In the meantime, people have children, loved ones pass away, and people need to take time off. Courts recognize this and don’t automatically assume that you will graduate from college in a timely fashion. It is also difficult to find a high paying job after you earn your degree. For example, you may not earn the grades needed to compete in the job market. Or you may not be willing to relocate to where jobs in your field are available.
The second exception is when a parent’s unemployment or underemployment “represents a bona fide career change that outweighs the adverse effect of that parent’s diminished income on the child.” Again, many parents argue that attending college fits into this exception, especially if that parent has decided to start a career in a field that requires a different college degree.
However, Courts are not always sympathetic to parents who decide to leave good jobs. Not every career change is genuine. And few career changes will “outweigh the adverse effect of that parent’s diminished income on the child.” In short, the longer it will take you to attend school, and the older your child is, the less likely your situation will fit this exception.
There is one other thing that college students need to know about child support. Any student loan dollars received over and above the cost of tuition and textbooks can be considered income. Said differently, if student loans are used to pay for rent, a car, or other living expenses, that income could be taken into consideration by the Court when setting child support.
Summary: It may seem unfair to ask a college student to pay child support. In some situations the Court will agree with you. In other situations you could be obligated to pay support even though you have little or no income. The bottom line is that these situations are complicated. And judicial officers have different opinions on this issue. If are a college student being asked to pay child support, it may be in your best interests to speak with a family lawyer.
Ben Olson is a family law attorney at Tuft, Lach, Jerabek & O’Connell, PLLC. He focuses his practice on cases involving child support, child custody, parenting time, and orders for protection. Visit his bio here to learn more about Ben.
This article is meant to provide general information about Minnesota law. Do not rely on this information as a substitute for personal legal advice, which should be based on all relevant information relating to your individual circumstances. This information may not accurately describe the law in other states.