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What happens if the Other Parent is Underemployed?

In Tennessee, child support is based in part on the relative incomes of the parents. But what happens if one of the parents is not working up to their potential? What if one of the parents quits a lucrative job and takes a lesser paying job, or perhaps just quits working altogether?

The court will not automatically assume a parent is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed just because they may not be working up to their potential. In determining whether a parent is underemployed for child support purposes, the court will look at the reasons for the parent’s choice to see if it is reasonable in light of the parent’s obligation to provide support for the child. Additionally, the court will examine whether the choice benefits the child. If the court finds that the choice was reasonable and benefits the child, the court will use the actual earnings of the parent. If the court finds the choice is not reasonable or does not benefit the child, then the court is required to assign income to the parent. Assigning income to a parent is referred to as “imputing” income.

When imputing income to an unemployed or underemployed parent, the Tennessee Child Support Guidelines require the court to look at the parents earning ability. The court will look at how much a parent has made in prior jobs and if the parent is currently working, how much that parent is making in the current job. Next the

court will examine the parent’s education and training to determine earning ability. For example, if a parent is an attorney but quits practicing law to go work as a cashier in a fast food restaurant, the court will likely consider that parent underemployed based on that parent’s education and will impute an amount equivalent to an attorney’s income.

If there is no reliable evidence of a parent’s income and if the parent fails to produce reliable evidence such as tax returns or paycheck stubs, the court must use the median gross income for the Tennessee population contained in the American Community Survey of 2006 from the U.S. Census Bureau. Currently that amount is $37,589 for male parents and $29,300 for female parents.

Remember, the court will not automatically assume a parent is voluntary unemployed or underemployed. As a result, the burden is on the person claiming the other parent is not working up to their potential to prove unemployment or underemployment. For this reason, it is important to hire a qualified child support attorney who understands the child support guidelines.

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