Child support is an ongoing, periodic payment made by a parent for the benefit of a child following the end of a marriage or other similar relationship. Typically, the “custodial parent” receives child support payments from the “non-custodial parent.”
Although mothers sometimes are ordered to pay child support, in most cases, fathers are ordered to pay child support. Every state has adopted laws that mandate child support and the responsibility of parents to support their children financially.
This article will summarize how child support works and what you need to know to manage your child support obligations.
Child Support Basics
Parents should be aware of a few fundamental facts about child support. The “custodial parent” is the parent who spends the most time with their child and has primary custody of the child overnight. A parent who does not have primary physical custody of the child is called a “non-custodial parent.” The non-custodial parent has less overnight visitation with the child.
Fathers are frequently the non-custodial parents. Remember that being a non-custodial parent does not mean you are not involved in your child’s life. It just means the child spends more time overnight with the other parent.
The idea behind child support is that both parents should share the financial responsibility of raising their children. The goal of the child support order will be to keep the child’s lifestyle at the level it would have been had the divorce never occurred. This typically means that the non-custodial parent will pay child support every month to help support the child financially.
Child support is calculated based on the combined income of the parents. The rules for calculating the amount of child support payments vary from state to state. Review the child support laws in your state so you can accurately estimate your child support obligation.
What Can Child Support Payments Be Used For?
Child support payments are intended to be used for the child’s care. It cannot be used for the custodial parent’s personal, non-child-related expenses. Disagreements often occur between parents over how the custodial parent uses child support payments.
Generally speaking, child support payments are made to maintain a child’s standard of living and guarantee that all of their essential needs are met. Legally, child support payments can be used to cover such expenses as:
- The rent or mortgage on the child’s primary home.
- The insurance and utilities for the child’s primary residence.
- The child’s food, clothing, toys, books, and furnishings.
- The child’s medical expenses include doctor’s visits, medications, eyeglasses, dental care, and similar services.
- The child’s school expenses, including tuition, room and board, books, supplies, clothing, and other costs, such as field trips.
- The cost of work-related childcare, daycare, and afterschool care.
- The child’s expenses associated with extracurricular activities, such as sports and summer camps.
- The cost of transporting the child to and from visitation, home, school, and other activities, including car payments, gas, ride-sharing, taxis, and bus costs.
Child support payments should not be used for non-custodial parent’s expenses that are unrelated to their children. Clothing, salon services, entertainment, and trips that were taken without the child are examples of financial misuse of child support payments. Even if child support money is left over at the end of the month, it should be set aside for future child-related expenses.
The parents’ marital settlement agreement should define what expenses child support payments should go towards so both parents clearly understand their responsibilities and how the money will be used.
How Long Does Child Support Last?
The law generally requires the person paying child support to continue to make payments until any of the following situations occur:
- The child is no longer a minor. In most states, this is when the child turns eighteen (18). Some states require child support to continue past the age of eighteen (18) if the child is still in high school.
- The child begins active duty in the military. This applies in the majority of states but not all. Check the laws in your state for specifics.
- The court terminates your parental rights. This happens if your child is adopted or the court takes away your parental rights through a petition to terminate your parental rights involuntarily.
- The child is declared legally emancipated. Emancipation of a minor is a legal proceeding by which a minor, before reaching the age of majority, is freed from the control of their parents, and the parents are no longer legally or financial responsibility for their child.
Do You Owe Child Support If You Never Married?
A child support obligation is not dependent on marriage. As a parent, you are responsible for financially supporting your child, even if you are not married to the other parent.
As a general rule, even if you were never married, the law requires every parent to support their children financially.
I have written about this issue in detail in a separate article if you are interested in learning more about this topic. In general, if you are unsure whether you are the child’s father, there are some practical things you can do.
What Should You Do if You Are Unsure You Are the Child’s Father?
If you are unsure whether you are the child’s father, you should seek a genetic test and a court ruling on paternity. Genetic testing (also known as DNA testing) involves a swipe of a cotton swab inside your cheek and the cheeks of the child and mother. The samples are then sent to a laboratory for testing. If the genetic test results show at least a 98 percent probability that you are the father, then most states would presume you are the child’s father.
If the genetic testing comes back positive, paternity is established. This means you are the legal father of the child. When paternity is established, you have the legal right to custody and visitation with the child. You also have access to the child’s school and medical records and can participate in making significant decisions about your child’s life.
Along with being named the legal father of a child comes the responsibility to pay child support. Once the genetic testing returns positive, most couples agree that the father’s name will be added to the birth certificate, and the obligation to begin financially supporting the child begins.
How is Child Support Calculated?
Federal law requires each state to establish guidelines for calculating the amount of child support owed by each parent. Child support is calculated based on the income of the parents, the expenses associated with raising the child, and the amount of time the child spends with each parent.
The court will look at other factors when determining child support, including:
- The number of children the parents have.
- Both parents’ monthly income and earnings.
- Whether child support is owed to other children from a past relationship.
- The amount each parent pays for work-related childcare.
- The cost of health insurance for the children.
- Extraordinary medical expenses for any of the children.
- Any special educational news the children might have.
- Both the parent’s financial resources and needs.
- Any bonuses or commissions earned on top of a base salary.
- Voluntary unemployment or underemployment.
Due to each state’s discretion in setting these guidelines, child support amounts can vary widely from state to state. Make sure you contact an attorney in your state to see how child support is calculated in your jurisdiction.
An Example of a Child Support Calculation in a Simple Case
Here is an example of a child support calculation when a couple has joint legal custody of the child, and the child spends equal time with each parent. Your child support obligation may look quite different, based on the facts and circumstances, but this will give you an idea.
Bob and Susan are getting divorced. They have only one child. Bob’s gross income is $200,000 per year. Susan’s gross income is $100,000 per year.
Neither of them has child support payments or obligations from a previous marriage, so their “adjusted gross income” is $300,000.
Dividing Bob and Susan’s salaries by the adjusted gross income will make Bob responsible for ⅔ or 66.7% of the child’s expenses, and Susan will be accountable for ⅓ or 33.3% of the child’s costs. This is their “percentage of the adjusted gross income.”
Adding up the expenses for the child, including private school tuition, health insurance, and reasonable childcare expenses, totals $60,000 per year. Multiplying the percentages above by the total amount of the child’s expenses means Jack is responsible for ⅔ of the $60,000 in child support, for a total child support obligation of $40,000.
Since there is a joint custody agreement in place and each parent has equal overnight visitations with the child, no adjustment is made as a result of the number of overnight visitations. By dividing Bob’s annual child support payment of $40,000 into twelve (12) monthly payments, we can calculate that his monthly child support payment is $3,333.33. Bob will pay Susan $3,333.33 per month for child support.
Child Support Modification
The court attempts to ensure that each parent contributes to the ongoing financial needs of the children by establishing child support payments. The amount of child support depends on how much money each parent makes and how much it costs to raise the children.
There are times when a parent’s financial circumstances will change over time. When this happens, a parent may file a motion to modify the child support order.
When is it Appropriate to Request a Modification of Child Support?
Typically, if there has been a “substantial and ongoing” change in either parent’s income or costs for child care, either parent may file a request for a child support modification. Generally speaking, most states deem a change substantial if it modifies the original child support amount by 20% or more.
What are the Typical Grounds for Modifying Child Support?
When either parent experiences a significant increase or decrease in income, they may decide to file a motion to modify child support.
This can happen when the parent making child support payments experiences a job loss and can no longer afford the child support payment. It is common for the parent in that situation to ask the court to lower the monthly child support obligation.
In contrast, a parent receiving child support payments may request a higher amount if the other parent gets a substantial raise and can now afford more child support.
Suppose a child’s medical or educational needs exceed the initial award. In that case, a parent may file a petition with the court and request higher child support payments from the non-custodial parent.
Do You Have to Go to Court to Modify Child Support?
To be legally enforceable, any agreement to modify child support must be approved by the court. It is possible, however, for parents to agree to support modifications without going to court as long as they meet specific, strict legal standards.
Check with an attorney in your state for the specifics.
Can You Withholding Child Support if You Are Being Denied Visitation?
A parent cannot legally stop or withhold child support payments if the other parent doesn’t let the child visit. The payment of child support and the child’s visitation are separate legal issues. Under the law, parents have the right to have a meaningful relationship with their children, regardless of child support payments.
Likewise, a parent may not refuse or limit the other parent’s visitation with the children even when the other parent has not paid child support.
If you have more questions about child support, you should talk to a divorce lawyer in your area.
What Happens if You Don’t Pay Child Support?
The consequences of not paying your child support obligations can be severe. Failing to pay your child support obligation can lead to numerous consequences, including:
- Contempt of court charges and jail time.
- Garnishment of your wages.
- Reporting nonpayment to credit bureaus.
- Filing liens on your property.
- Taking lottery winnings.
- Taking your tax refund.
- Suspending your driver’s license.
- Asking the prosecutor to file criminal non-support charges against you.
Suppose you are having trouble paying your child support obligations, what are some practical things you can do? Consider making a more realistic budget, cutting back on expenses, looking for cheaper housing or a cheaper car, or negotiating with creditors to lower your monthly debt payments. Whatever you do, do not stop paying your child support obligation.
If you lose your job, get demoted, have to take a pay cut, incur significant medical bills, or face other extenuating financial circumstances, you should immediately initiate the process of filing a motion to modify the child support order. The first step in doing this is to contact the state’s child support enforcement office and ask to submit a formal motion to modify your child support obligations.
Do not let yourself get behind on your child support payments. Choosing to ignore your child support responsibility can have far-reaching consequences for you and your family.