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Child Support Guidelines in Practice

Wisconsin provides presumptive child support guidelines for court officials to use when setting child support order amounts. Court officials may set orders at an amount higher or lower than the guidelines, if they determine that the guidelines yield an unfair amount. This study explores court officials’ perceptions of the guidelines and the circumstances under which they set order amounts that differ from the guidelines. The goal is to better understand the alignment between Wisconsin’s guidelines and the circumstances officials encounter in practice when setting orders.

Data were gathered through semi-structured interviews with court officials in three Wisconsin counties, followed by observations of court hearings in which orders were set or modified. Counties were selected purposively for variety in location, size, and sociodemographic characteristics. Interviews were conducted by Zoom, then transcribed, coded, and analyzed thematically. Court observations occurred in person and via Zoom; notes from observations were coded and analyzed to provide qualitative, contextual information about the order establishment and modification process and how order amounts are determined. When order amounts differed from guidelines formulas, these notes were further coded into categories.

The court officials included in this study perceived the guidelines as helpful for their judicial practice and straightforward to use, and felt that the guidelines were useful for facilitating consistency and reducing subjectivity and improving fairness and perceptions of fairness in outcomes; and are straightforward to use. Court officials described that the guidelines typically work well without deviations, and identified circumstances in which they sometimes find deviations to be appropriate—namely, situations in which parents agree to an amount that differs from guideline formulas; have very high or very low incomes; have complex family structures or multiple orders; or when one parent disproportionately bears the cost of significant variable expenses. Observation data aligned with interview responses; orders were set at the guidelines amount most of the time. Differences were most frequently related to stipulated agreements between parents and the payor’s financial circumstances.

Findings highlight the challenges of determining income and order amounts when payors work outside the formal labor market or are self-employed, unemployed, or irregularly employed. Findings also underscore unique considerations for setting orders when children are placed in out-of-home care. Additional guidance related to low-income and self-employed payors, and payors with children placed in out-of-home care, could potentially help support practice and right-sizing of orders.


Child Support, Child Support Policy Research, Guidelines, Orders & Payments


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