Tennessee Child Support: Understanding “Willful and Voluntary Unemployment”

When the parents of a minor child get divorced or decide not to live together in the case of unmarried parents, the State of Tennessee requires both parents to contribute to the child’s financial support post-divorce or post-separation. How much child support is ordered will depend on several factors, including the income of both parents. What happens if one parent is unemployed though?  A Murfreesboro child support lawyer at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby explains how Tennessee defines “willful and voluntary unemployment” and how a court determines child support if one parent is willfully and voluntarily unemployed.

Defining Willful and Voluntary Unemployment

The Tennessee Child Support Guidelines govern issues related to the determination and enforcement of a child support order within the State of Tennessee. Whether determining an initial child support amount or considering a modification of child support, the court must consider the income of both parents. While the law does allow for legitimate reasons for a parent to be unemployed, the law does not allow a parent to be “willfully and voluntarily” unemployed. 

When determining if a parent is willfully and voluntarily unemployed, the Guidelines are intended to help the court “ascertain the reasons for the parent’s occupational choices, and to assess the reasonableness of these choices in light of the parent’s obligation to support his or her child(ren) and to determine whether such choices benefit the children.” When reviewing a parent’s choices, a court is not required to find that unemployment is motivated by a desire to avoid or reduce child support. Any intentional choice or act that adversely affects a parent’s income can result in a finding of willful and voluntary unemployment. Incarceration, for example, can be considered willful and voluntary unemployment because it is the result of a choice made by the parent to commit a criminal offense. 

When deciding if a parent is willfully and voluntarily unemployed, a court may consider the following factors:

  • The parent’s past and present employment
  • The parent’s education, training, and ability to work
  • When deciding if income should be imputed to a stay-at-home parent, a court may consider:
    •  Whether the parent acted in the role of full-time caretaker while the parents were living in the same household.
    • The length of time the parent that is staying at home has remained out of the workforce for this purpose.
    • The age of the minor children.
  • A parent’s extravagant lifestyle, including ownership of valuable assets and resources (such as an expensive home or automobile), that appears inappropriate or unreasonable for the income claimed by the parent.
  • The parent’s role as caretaker of a handicapped or seriously ill child of that parent, or any other handicapped or seriously ill relative.
  • Whether unemployment or underemployment for the purpose of pursuing additional training or education is reasonable and whether the training or education will ultimately benefit the child.
  • Any additional factors deemed relevant to the circumstances of the case.

How Is Child Support Calculated If a Parent Is Found to Be “Willfully and Voluntarily Unemployed?”

If a court determines that a parent is willfully and voluntarily unemployed, additional income can be allocated to that parent to increase the parent’s gross income to an amount that reflects the parent’s income potential or earning capacity. That figure is then used to calculate child support payments.  The amount of additional income allocated to the parent is determined using the parent’s past and present employment as well as the parent’s education and training. If the court has no reliable source of income and/or earning capacity for a parent, the court may impute income based on the median income of a full-time, year-round worker in the State of Tennessee as determined by the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

Contact a Murfreesboro Child Support Lawyer

If you have questions or concerns about child support in Tennessee, contact a Murfreesboro child support lawyer to discuss your legal rights and options. Contact the team at Bennett | Michael | Hornsby as soon as possible by calling 615-898-1560 to schedule your free appointment.

Stan Bennett