By Divorce.com staff
Updated Feb 15, 2023
Child support payments are payments made from a parent to a child. The recipient parent is ultimately responsible for how the money is spent, but the money doesn’t technically belong to them.
Although there are some limitations on how child support payments can be spent, there’s a lot of flexibility. This is an overview of what child support can and cannot be used for.
How Is Child Support Determined?
A child support agreement is determined at the same time that a child custody arrangement is determined. You and your spouse will create a plan for parenting time. One parent will likely have the child for more overnight visits than the other parent, and that parent is most likely to receive child support.
Child support is usually paid by the parent who has fewer overnights with the child. If the child custody arrangement gives one parent primary or sole physical custody, they’ll receive child support payments. One parent may also receive child support payment in cases of joint custody, depending on both parents’ income.
States follow child support guidelines to determine the amount of child support the paying parent will give to the receiving parent.
They will look at the paying parent’s gross income and the receiving parent’s gross income to determine how much a parent can afford to pay and the amount of money the receiving parent will need to support their children. The amount of child support increases with the number of children the parents share.
Each state has a child support calculator that can be used to determine estimated payments, but your final child support payments can be different. If one parent has a substantial annual income, the children are probably used to a much higher standard of living. Child support payments will be calculated to maintain their standard of living.
Child support payments can also be changed with time. If one parent has a significant change in their income or begins to collect social security or disability benefits, you can contact the court to adjust the amount of support a parent will pay or receive when circumstances change.
Payments can be raised or lowered depending on the situation.
Is Child Support Different From Alimony?
Child support and spousal support are two different payments. When couples with children get divorced, it’s common that one of them will pay child support.
Spousal support is less common. Child support payments are specifically intended to provide for children. Spousal support payments go directly to the receiving spouse and are used to meet their personal financial needs.
How Do People Use Child Support?
Child support can be used for just about any expenses relating to the child. Child support agreements are designed to assure that the needs of the child are being met.
A Child’s Basic Needs
The court wants to know that every child has a roof over their head, running water, electricity, and food in their belly. Recipient parents are allowed to use child support payments to pay their rent, grocery bills, and utilities. These things are necessary to keep a child safe, especially if the child will live with that parent most of the time.
A Child’s Educational Needs
Child support can be used to pay a minor child’s tuition to a private school or a specialty program. If a child needs a tutor or an online educational enrichment program to improve their academic process, this also qualifies as an educational expense.
Some states allow the court to extend a child support order into early adulthood if the funding is used for college or a career training program. They won’t do this by default. The adult child and the recipient parent will need to ask the court to extend the payments when the child turns 18 years old.
If the adult child is still completely financially dependent on their parents and has active plans to continue their education past high school, the court may approve the request to continue child support payments.
Childcare and Extracurricular Expenses
If both parents work, their child will likely need to attend daycare or an extracurricular activity. The money can also be used to pay someone a parent employs as a babysitter. Fees for things like sports fees, music lessons, and art classes are considered extracurricular expenses. You can also use child support to pay tuition for programs like day camps or summer camps.
Transportation Costs for a Child
If a parent uses their vehicle to transport their child safely, they can use child support funds to pay for their car payment or gas. The money can also be used for things like bus fare or plane tickets if the child has to travel back and forth from a different state to visit one of their parents.
The Wellbeing of the Child
Child support payments can also pay for a child’s health insurance, prescriptions, or co-pays. It can also be used for over-the-counter medications, like cough medicine. Most child support orders will allocate a specific amount of the payment to cover a portion of the child’s monthly health insurance.
Child support can be used for unexpected medical expenses. A child may need an extended hospital stay. They may need braces when their adult teeth come in. These expenses would be above and beyond normal healthcare expenses, but parents can still use child support funds for this purpose.
Miscellaneous Expenses That Directly Benefit a Child
Holiday gifts, birthday presents, a keyboard for piano lessons, sports equipment, school supplies, lunch money, and weekly allowance would all count as miscellaneous expenses for a child.
These expenses don’t take priority over crucial expenses, but they’re still an acceptable way to spend child support if other needs don’t come first.
As long as the money is spent in a way that directly benefits a child, enriches their life, or maintains their standard of living, it’s a valid way to spend funds from child support payments.
When Can’t You Use Child Support?
Family law has a broad interpretation of what expenses child support covers. The money can be used for anything that directly or indirectly supports a child. Paying your bills and making your car payment both support a child’s well-being. It’s very difficult to prove that the money doesn’t benefit the child in some way unless it’s clear that a child’s needs aren’t being met.
There are some expenses that the paying parent may find unnecessary. If the recipient parent decides to take the children to a theme park with the child support money, the court is unlikely to take issue with that decision. It may be an extravagant outing, but the money was still being spent on the children.
Child support cannot be used for illegal activities or items. If you believe your former spouse is using their child support money on things like drugs or illicit gambling, you have a much bigger problem. Rather than revisiting your child support case, it’s better to revisit your custody arrangement. Your children may be at risk of harm.
What If I Disagree With How My Former Spouse Is Using Their Child Support Payments?
It’s difficult to prove that someone is misusing child support funds. If all of the child’s basic needs are taken care of, the court isn’t usually interested in semantics or small details. A parent can spend their own money covering all of their child’s needs and reimburse themselves with a child support payment.
If you feel like your former spouse isn’t using their child support payments properly, what you’re actually saying is that you feel as though they aren’t properly meeting the child’s needs. If your child is hungry, sick, wearing tattered clothes, and doing poorly in school, the issue is not directly related to child support payments. The issue is your former spouse’s neglect of your child.
If the court finds that your child’s needs are neglected, they won’t ask you to stop paying child support. They’ll intervene and remove the child from the situation. It’s better to point these problems out to the court and ask for primary custody or sole custody of the child so that you can better meet the child’s needs. If you have primary or sole custody, you won’t be asked to pay child support.
This is a complicated process, and you’ll need the help of a family law attorney if you’d like to change your child support order or custody agreement.
How Does Child Support Affect Income Tax Payments or Returns?
Some divorced parents get confused about claiming their children on their taxes and getting money back on their returns. Money received for claiming children on your taxes is not the same as child support, and it doesn’t come with any obligations.
Child support is tax-free. It cannot be deducted by the parent who is paying the child support, and it doesn’t need to be claimed by the parent receiving the child support. One parent can still claim the child tax credit, and the IRS doesn’t have a preference for which parent should get it.
Many parents choose to alternate years. One parent claims the child on odd years while the other claims the child on even years. If there are two children, each parent may claim one. If you both claim the same child, your return will be rejected, and you’ll need to refile your taxes. You’ll have to work together to determine how you’d like to approach the situation. Make sure you’re both on the same page before you file your taxes.
The parent who receives the child tax credit can spend it however they choose. It’s a reimbursement from the government for money they’ve already spent on their child. The money doesn’t belong to the child. It belongs to the parent. If the parent who receives the tax rebate chooses to take that money and treat themselves to a personal vacation, they’re well within their rights to do so.
What If I Can’t Pay My Child Support?
If you can’t pay your child support, contact the court immediately. If you’ve recently lost your job or encountered unexpected emergency expenses, let the court know. They may be willing to work with you. You’ll have to inform them when your ability to pay is restored and continue making payments.
If you don’t contact the court, you can face consequences. Child support is a court order, and when you don’t abide by a court order, you can be held in contempt. Many states have the ability to suspend your driver’s license for nonpayment of child support. In some cases, parents can face jail time for attempting to evade child support payments.
What If I Haven’t Received My Child Support?
If your ex hasn’t been paying child support, don’t confront them. You don’t want to create a hostile situation that may escalate. Instead, contact the court. Let them know how long it's been since you’ve received a payment.
You’ll also want to provide them with any other valuable information you have, like lack of contact from your ex or if your ex has failed to meet their time-sharing obligations with your children. The court will handle the next steps and contact you if they have any questions.
When it’s time to determine your plan for child support, you and your spouse will make a plan that works for both of you. The child support payments provided by you or your spouse can cover a child’s basic needs, schooling, childcare, and expenses that promote their overall well-being.
In circumstances when you aren’t receiving child support payments from your ex, it’s best to contact the court instead of confronting them directly. While this may be a tough call to make, it’s worth it for the well-being of your children and yourself.