Child support is a court-ordered payment made by one parent to the other parent for the benefit of their child or children. Child support laws in each state outline the amount of the support based on custody or how much time the child lives with each parent, as well as their income and finances. The parent who does not have primary physical custody of the child, or lives with a child less than half the time, is usually the parent ordered to make child support payments.
Why Is Child Support Necessary?
The purpose of child support is to provide for the child even in situations where they do not live with both parents. Raising children is expensive, and both parents are responsible for the financial support of their children. Child support is necessary to make sure both parents are fulfilling their financial obligations to the child.
Child support payments are intended to go toward the expenses involved in raising a child. Some examples include:
- Food, shelter, and clothing;
- Medical care and health related expenses;
- Educational expenses.
Both parents have an obligation to financially support their children. Mandatory child support is the means by which the court can make sure that non-custodial parents are contributing to the needs of their children. Mandatory means that the support is required by law.
The parent required to pay cannot escape that obligation, and the parent with physical custody of the children cannot refuse to accept the child support payments the court has ordered for the child.
Who Is Required to Pay Child Support?
In situations where parents do not share physical custody equally, or where the child lives with one parent more than half of the time, the parent the child spends less time with will be required to pay child support. A mother or a father can be ordered to pay child support. It is not necessary that the parents were ever married for a parent to be ordered to pay child support.
In some cases there might be a dispute regarding who the biological father of the child is. In those instances the court will usually order a test to determine paternity before calculating and ordering child support.
Adoptive parents will be subject to child support laws, however absent an adoption, step-parents are not obligated to pay child support to their step-children.
How Is the Amount of Child Support Determined?
Each state has guidelines that are used to calculate the specific child support payment in each situation. The court determines how much the support payments will be based on the specific circumstances of the parents who will be paying. The guidelines will usually give the court a range and then the judge can order an amount within that range. Some states give judges a lot of discretion when determining the final amount, while others require the court to follow very strict guidelines.
In every case there are certain factors that must be considered when figuring out the final child support obligation. Those factors usually include:
- The specific needs of the child, including healthcare needs and medical expenses, education, childcare, and other special needs.
- How many children the parent is responsible for supporting,
- The custodial parent’s income compared to that of the other parent.
- The ability of the non-custodial parent to pay.
- In the case of divorce, the court might consider the child’s standard of living before the divorce or separation.
As part of the process each parent will be required to submit their financial information to the court. This is usually in the form of a financial statement that outlines all monthly income and expenses. The court uses the financial information and the amount of time each parent spends with the child pursuant to any custody arrangement and visitation schedule and uses a child support calculator to determine the amount that will be owed each month.
What Are Some Additional Child Support Factors?
The court can consider any relevant information when determining a parent’s support obligation. The court will usually start by looking at each parent’s gross income, but will also take into consideration things like: taxes, social security deductions, healthcare payments, union dues, required professional licensing fees, and other child support obligations the parent might have.
Additional factors might include the additional expenses one parent has incurred for their own education or financial obligations for elderly or disabled family members. The court might also consider bonuses or commissions earned in addition to their salary or wages.
Some courts might not stop after considering income. In some situations the court might consider a parent’s ability to earn versus their actual earnings. For example, a parent who only earns $50,000 but who has the potential to earn $100,000 might be responsible for a child support payment calculated using the higher amount. This is to avoid non-custodial parents intentionally remaining underemployed to lower their support obligation.
In some cases parents might come to an agreement between themselves regarding the child support payment. However, in almost every case the agreement will require a judge’s approval since the judge must make sure the child’s best interests are met.
How Are Child Support Awards Enforced?
A child support order is the first step in making sure a parent is meeting their support obligation. However if the parent is not making their required payments the court might have to take additional steps to enforce the child support order. There are several ways to compel the parent to contribute the required amount:
- Wage garnishment, where the employer is required to withhold a certain amount from the non-paying parent’s paycheck and forward the money to the parent who is supposed to receive the support.
- Garnishing the delinquent parent’s tax refund.
- Placing a lien on their property.
- Revoking their driver’s or professional license.
- Denying or revoking the issuance of a United States Passport if the parent owes more than $2,500.
- In rare cases a parent delinquent in child support payments can be held in contempt of court for failing to follow the court order and be required to serve time in jail.
Parents who need assistance with enforcing a child support order can contact their local child support enforcement agency.
What Are Child Support Payment Modifications?
In some situations a parent might be able to ask the court to modify a child support order. Typically this requires the parent to show that they have experienced a change in circumstances. The change in circumstances must be such that the ability to pay or needs of the child has been affected. For example, applicable change in circumstances might include:
- A job change for either parent that increases or decreases their income
- Changes to the custody arrangement or visitation schedule
- Temporary economic hardship
- A child with a medical emergency
- A significant change in the other needs of the child, such as an increase in educational expenses.
While the court will consider a change in circumstances and how it affects the child support order, a custodial parent cannot make the unilateral decision to incur a large expense for the child and then force the other parent to help pay for it. This includes the decision to send the child to private school. Courts will look at each situation on a case-by-case basis and determine what share, if any, of a new expense each parent will be responsible for paying.
Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Child Support Matters?
Child support is a legal obligation that is enforced by the court. The procedures for establishing the required payment can be complicated and confusing. It is in your best interest to contact a child support lawyer to help you through the process.
They can prepare your financial statement and make sure nothing is overlooked. An experienced attorney can help protect your interests and make sure both you and your child receive the best possible outcome based on your situation and circumstances.