Child support is a court-ordered payment that is generally ongoing and periodic (paid in regular intervals). Usually, child support is paid by a non-custodial divorced parent to the other parent, for the financial benefit of the children from their former marriage or relationship.
In short, a child support order is an official court order that contains all the required instructions and terms for child support payments. They are often issued during a divorce or custody proceeding. However, a child support order can also be requested independently of other orders.
A child support order from the court instructs the parties regarding when, how often, and how much the non-custodial parent is required to pay. Child support orders generally contain important information, such as:
- The payment responsibilities for each parent;
- The names and information of each of the children who will be receiving support;
- Schedules for payments, which are typically monthly payments;
- Consequences of failure to pay on time and in full; and
- Procedures for adjusting or changing support payment terms.
If there is more than one child receiving child support, the order will also contain instructions for “ageing out.” This refers to the time when each child turns eighteen years old and the non-custodial parent will no longer make child support payments for them. This lowers the amount paid each month.
One exception to this pattern is when a child has a disability; children with a recognized disability will generally receive financial support for the duration of their lives.
In order to make any change to court-ordered child support payments, you will need to file a “motion to modify” in the court of your state’s family law department. It is important to note that the courts consider all support payments to be a high priority, and obtaining the motion to modify can often be difficult.
For the court to grant the motion and make a change in a child support order, they need to be presented with a compelling reason. If there has been a major change in the financial situation of one or both parents, then the court will usually change the order.
Some of these substantial changes include:
- Job loss due to disability;
- Increase in health insurance costs;
- Unexpected educational expenses, such as a child being expelled from their public school and needing to be placed in private school;
- One parent earns more money;
- Increased daycare and/or transportation costs;
- Decreased visitation time; or
- A substantial decrease in income such that it deviates from the state’s child support guidelines.
Typically, a child support order cannot be modified in instances of bankruptcy, due to it being a support obligation. Further, support payments are generally determined by annual income. Thus, if your job was affected by a factor such as a failing economy, then you may be able to petition the court to modify the order to match your new annual income.
Most states have a child support calculator tool that follow the state’s child support guidelines. This calculator will let you know if you qualify for a modification due to decreased income. You may also be able to modify your child support payments through a mutual agreement with your former spouse.
The mutual agreement should be in writing and signed by both parties. A court hearing is usually not required if you are able to come to a mutual agreement. However, both parents are required to file an uncontested motion in order to modify the child support order.
Keep in mind that quitting your high paying job and purposefully making less money is not a way to lower your child support obligations. You must have a valid reason as to why you needed to take a significantly lowering paying job. If the court believes you did this to evade your child support obligations, then you can face serious consequences.
Each state has different penalties and consequences for violating a child support order. As previously mentioned, most courts place high importance on family support payments. Therefore, any failure to provide that support is not taken lightly.
In addition, child support orders are court-issued and therefore enforceable under law. Failure to comply with child support orders can result in serious consequences, such as:
- Contempt Orders: A court can hold the non paying parent “in contempt” of the support order. Contempt is a legal ruling that the court’s instructions were violated and can sometimes include punishments such as jail time.
- Court Fines: States can choose to charge additional monetary fines and fees as a penalty for violating child support orders. So many parents who fall behind on child support payments find themselves owing thousands of dollars because of these additional fines.
- Decreased Credit Score and Garnished Wages: Garnishment allows the state to authorize your employer to take the support payments directly from your earned wages. This is done using a Default Judgment and Wage Garnishment Order, which is issued by the state’s court. A judge can also order a wage garnishment if a parent missed child support payments while unemployed, but soon after found employment.
- Driver’s License Suspension: This is typically a first-step penalty for non-payment. As part of the license renewal process, states can sometimes ask if you pay child support. Local child support agencies may also report to the DMV when a parent falls behind on child support payments. The state can also take other measures such as preventing you from obtaining a passport.
Other severe consequences may include child support liens, seized bank accounts, interception of tax refunds, military service dismissal, and jail time.
Changing or modifying child support orders is a complicated process that requires examining several different factors. Further, because non-payment penalties are a serious matter, it is important to understand your legal options.
A knowledgeable and experienced child support attorney can help you find out if you qualify for modification, file the necessary court documents, and represent you in family court.