Child Support

What is Child Support?

In the eyes of the law, the raising of children and providing financial support for their wellbeing is the responsibility of both parents. Usually child support is paid by the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent.

Support payments are intended to help cover the costs of housing, food, clothing, and other basic needs, as well as school expenses, and other normal expenses of raising children. How much child support should be paid is calculated based on a formula set by the laws of each state. Support may be ordered to be paid by either parent, or in a situation in which the children are living with a third party or agency, both parents may be ordered to pay support.

Child support basics

A custodial parent is defined as the parent who has primary custody of a child for the majority of the time. The non-custodial parent is usually the parent who does not have physical custody of a child, though they may have or share legal custody.

While fathers are most often associated with being the non-custodial parent, this is not always the case and many mothers are responsible for paying child support too. Likewise, a non-custodial parent may remain very involved in their child’s life and parents may choose to co-parent. It’s important to know that child support is not dependent on the parents having ever been married.

How child support is calculated

Each state has specific guidelines based on the federal law.

The income shares model combines both parents’ income, determines the basic level of support, then adds expenses, and then an obligation is prorated between the parents based on their percentage of the combined income. Forty states use the income share model.

The percentage of income model determines the non-custodial parent’s income, determines the percentage of the non-custodial parent’s income that will be applied, applies the percentage to the income, and finalizes the obligation by making adjustments for add-ons and deductions. Seven states use the percentage income model, four of which use the flat percentage model.

The Melson Formula is a more complicated version of the Income Shares model, which incorporates public policy judgments to unsure each parent’s basic needs are met in addition to the children. Only Delaware, Hawaii, and Montana use the Melson Formula.

The District of Columbia uses a hybrid model that starts as a varying percentage of income model and is then reduced by a formula based on the custodial parent’s income.

Search the Internet for your state’s online child support calculator to get an idea of how much support could be ordered in your case.  

Once this calculation is made, the family court judge will consider other factors, such as disparity in the parents’ incomes and any other issues that would suggest a support order should depart from the federal guidelines. If a non-guideline amount of child support is ordered, the judge must document that the order is in the children’s best interest.

Child Support Add-Ons

In addition to a monthly support payment amount, many states make specific orders regarding the parents’ responsibility to share other expenses such as healthcare costs, medical insurance, and childcare expenses, plus educational costs and extracurricular activities. Because these costs vary, a set amount cannot be ordered and added to the child support payment. Usually, the parents are ordered to share these costs equally, one parent being required to provide the other parent with receipts or proof of payment or anticipated charges.

Uses for child support

While the custodial parent often receives the child support payment, it should not be used for their personal expenses that are unrelated to their children. Misuse of funds includes things like clothing, salon services, or entertainment and vacations that don’t involve the child. Even if money is left over in any given month, it should be saved for future expenses related to the children.

In the parent’s agreement, many of these expenses will be defined so both parties have a clear understanding of their responsibilities and what the money will be used for. It may also include a way of dealing with and sharing the costs of unexpected expenses.

Actions to take when in financial distress

Situations change, individuals experience medical emergencies, loss of income, or other issues causing economic hardship. If financial problems create difficulties making full child support payments, it is important that the paying parent notify the other parent, and the child support enforcement agency. In many cases a temporary payment plan can be entered into to prevent more serious consequences of non-payment.

It is also possible for the support order to be modified by the court. The paying parent must request such a modification of child support payments, showing there has been a change in circumstances, such as a decrease in income, change in the custody and visitation schedule, or unexpected expenses that caused economic hardship. If the court agrees that the change in circumstance warrants a change in support, the amount will be re-calculated using the standard formula which takes into account both parents’ incomes and other considerations.

Tax consequences of child support

Child support payments are outside the tax system for both parties. The parent making support payments cannot deduct them for tax purposes, and the party receiving payments does not have to list them as income for tax purposes.

How to file for child support

A child support order may be requested even if the parents have never been married or lived together. While the exact procedure for obtaining a support order, or a modification to an existing order, varies by jurisdiction, certain basic steps are common.

  1. File a motion, complaint, or application for child support order with the local family court. A parent can hire an attorney to help with this, or use the standardized forms provided by the court to do it themselves. When the documents are filed, the court will issue a hearing date.
  2. Serve the motion on the other parent. This service of process may be done by a local sheriff, constable, process server, or another adult who is not a party to the case.
  3. Attend a hearing, where both parents will be required to provide information on their income, tax status, and expenses, as well as information on the children, custody schedule, and parentage if applicable.
  4. The court charges a fee to both parents for the initial filing, though parents with a very low income, or who are receiving public assistance, may obtain a fee waiver. This requires the filing of an application for fee waiver with the court, and provision of detailed income information.

Legal help for child support

Child Support law can be complex, more so if one parent lives in a different state or country. If possible, it may be a good idea to consult with a local family law attorney. For a fee, they will be able to explain how the procedure for filing and paying support and guide you through the process.  Legal aid for people with low incomes is available. Search “legal aid services” for you state, or click here: How to find a lawyer and affordable Legal Aid.

For questions about child support payments from or to someone in another country, search The Office of Child Support Enforcement’s international resources. There may be a state or national agreement to provide support services with the country in question. If you need further help, submit your international questions through the OCSE online form.

How to establish paternity

Child support cannot be enforced until paternity is established.  

If you are single and do not plan to marry the father of your child before the baby is born, ask him to voluntarily establish paternity, either at the hospital when the baby is born or through a prenatal paternity test. This will provide the basis of financial support for the child and visitation rights for the father.

Consider contacting an attorney to protect your child’s rights, or call your local Office of Child Support Enforcement and your local Legal Aid organization.

When child support ends

In most cases, the obligation to pay child support ends when the child reaches the age of majority, which varies in some states, from age 16 to 21, or until the child graduates from high school. In some states, support may be ordered to continue after the age of majority if the child is attending college full time. Certain circumstances allow for early termination of child support, including the child’s legal emancipation, the child’s marriage, or death of the child. In the event support payments fell behind at some point, and the payments have not been caught up by the time the order terminates, the paying parent must continue to make payments until the arrears have been satisfied.