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How To Understand Child Support

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Feb 15, 2023

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How To Understand Child Support

Some of the most important decisions you’ll make during your divorce relate to your children’s well-being. Child support and child custody assure that your children always receive the care they need.

Whether you’ve been ordered to pay child support or you’re due to receive child support, you’ll need to understand how the child support process works.

Here are our answers to FAQs about the child support process.

How To Understand Child Support

What Are Child Support Services?

Child support payments are payments one parent makes to another for the care of their children. Although the money is awarded to the parent, these funds technically belong to the kids. The recipient parent is the one who will decide how the money will be spent for the children’s wellbeing.

Child support obligations are decided and awarded by the court at the time the parents pursue a divorce or legal separation. The court will review your custody arrangement, income, and the needs of your children before issuing a child support order.

If the parents were never married and break up, the parent who primarily cares for the children can ask the court to order child support.

Is Child Support Different From Alimony?

Child support and alimony are two different payments.

Alimony payments are payments one spouse pays to another for direct financial support. Alimony is ordered in cases where one spouse was financially dependent on the other spouse throughout the duration of a marriage.

These payments aren’t intended to support children. In some cases, a spouse may be ordered to pay both child support and alimony.

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Who Has To Pay Child Support?

Child support is paid by the non-custodial parent, which is the parent that has the children for the fewest overnight visits. Payments will be received by the parent with sole or primary physical custody of the children.

If you’ve chosen a joint custody arrangement, the decision will come down to a technicality. Joint custody gives both parents plenty of parenting time, but that time is rarely divided into a perfect 50/50 split. There aren’t an even number of days in the year, so one parent will have the children overnight slightly more than the other parent.

How Are Child Support Payments Calculated in a Child Support Program?

Courts use a number of factors to calculate child support payments. Child support guidelines vary depending on federal law and state law. Your state may have a child support calculator you can use to get a rough estimate of what you may pay or receive if you haven’t yet received an order.

The court wants to make sure that the needs of the child are adequately met. They’ll look at the incomes of both parents to assess what they’re feasibly able to pay and how much the recipient parent would need to provide for their children. They want to calculate a child support amount that’s sufficient and sustainable.

The Number of Children You Have

The amount of child support you pay increases with the number of children you have. It won’t double for two children or triple for three children, but it will increase substantially with each additional child.

Considering The Needs of The Child

If a child has special needs or health care requirements, the court will factor those needs into the child support amount. They’ll also consider the child’s current standard of living.

Does the child require a special diet? Do they attend a private school? Will they need to attend a childcare program? The court wants the child’s life to be similar to the way it was before your divorce.

Health insurance is usually decided separately. The court may order each parent to pay a percentage of health insurance costs for the child. The situation may be different if the child receives health insurance through a parent’s employer.

Looking at the Paying Parent’s Income

The court wants to avoid ordering the noncustodial parent to pay a child support amount they truly cannot afford. If the paying parent has a low earning potential and no special career qualifications, their maximum expected income may be low. The court will take this into account when generating a child support amount.

Paying parents with successful careers are often expected to pay more. This isn’t just because they have more to give. It’s also because the child’s standard of living before the divorce was likely much higher.

Looking at the Recipient Parent’s Income

If both parents worked prior to the divorce, they both have an income.

If the recipient parent’s income is much higher than the paying parent’s income, the paying parent may be expected to pay a more modest amount. If the recipient parent didn’t work throughout the duration of the marriage or has a lower earning capacity, the paying parent will have a greater financial responsibility.

Considering the Custody Agreement

A parent with sole physical custody of the children will always be required to care for the children, meaning they’re more likely to receive a larger child support payment. They won’t be splitting costs for things like food and daily necessities if the other parent never has to provide them.

Parents with primary custody have their children most of the time. What the non-custodial parent doesn’t give in terms of time, they will usually give in the form of money. A parent who only sees their child every other weekend will likely pay more in child support than a parent who sees their child every weekend.

Things can get somewhat complicated in joint custody situations. The court will weigh the other factors as more important when making a decision regarding the paying parent’s child support obligation. In some cases, child support in joint custody situations may not be necessary.

Can Child Support Be Modified?

The court will allow you to modify a child support order if circumstances significantly change. If either parent’s income dramatically changes or if a child’s needs unexpectedly increase, the court will revisit your case and see what they can do to better support the needs of everyone involved.

If modifying the order is a valid solution to the issue, they will usually allow you to do so.

How Can Parents Use Child Support Payments?

Child support payments are intended for any purchases that directly or indirectly benefit a child. Food, clothing, and school supplies will directly benefit a child. Paying the rent, paying for medical support, covering utilities, or clearing up a past-due car payment will indirectly benefit the child.

The child needs a safe roof over their head and safe transportation, which makes it acceptable for the recipient parent to use child support payments for those purposes.

Child support payments can also be used for non-essential things that benefit a child. This includes things like birthday parties, holiday gifts, or family trips. If child support makes it possible for the recipient parent to afford those items, parents are allowed to spend the money on them.

How Do You Receive Child Support Payments?

Most states will issue recipient parents a special debit card after their child support order goes into effect. Payments are made to the child support agency and automatically loaded onto the debit card on a specific date. There will be a phone number on the back of the card that you can use to check the balance.

This card functions like any other debit card and can be used anywhere. You can also create an online account to view the balance and transactions on the card. You can use the card to autopay things like your child’s school lunch account or daycare service.

When Do Child Support Payments Stop?

Child support payments usually automatically stop when a child turns 18. Some states allow requests to extend child support obligations after a child graduates high school. Adult children who are financially dependent on their parents can continue to receive child support if they’re attending college or a career training program after school.

Child support payments can also be extended for children with special needs or disabilities, especially if they require a care provider and are unable to work. Payments can continue to be deducted from your bank account until the disabled adult child receives necessary benefits from outside sources or public assistance programs, like Medicaid or social security disability benefits.

What Happens If You Don’t Pay Child Support?

If you don’t pay child support, child support enforcement will get involved. Child support is a court order, and you don’t have the choice to avoid a court order. Payments can automatically be deducted from your paycheck and deposited into your child support account if you don’t make them voluntarily. If you fail to pay or report your income, most states will revoke your driver’s license.

If you’re held in contempt of court for willful non-payment of child support, you can even face jail time. You cannot voluntarily skip your child support payments. If you’re having difficulty paying, contact the court.

What If You Can’t Afford to Pay Child Support?

If you’re unable to afford to make child support payments, let the court know the moment you’re aware that you won’t be able to pay by the due date. If you have a legitimate reason (like unexpectedly losing your job, becoming ill or seriously injured, or becoming disabled), the court will be willing to work with you.

Temporary and permanent hardships will be considered. The court will make a determination of what the next steps should be after they’ve consulted with you.

What If the Child May Not Be Mine?

Questions about parentage can significantly change a child support case. If you have questions about paternity, you can ask for a DNA test before you’re ordered to pay child support. The law requires that a paternity test is performed in all situations where there may be a chance that the person ordered to pay support may not be the biological parent of the child.

If the test proves that you are the biological parent of the child, you have to pay. If you aren’t, you are not responsible for paying child support. It doesn’t matter if you were married to the child’s other parent or if you supported the child for most of their life. The other parent can legally pursue the child’s biological parent for child support.

This doesn’t apply in situations where a child was legally adopted. Legally adopted children are yours in the eyes of the law, and they aren’t treated any differently from biological children.

What If I Don’t Agree With How My Co-Parent Is Spending My Child Support Payments?

If you don’t agree with how your co-parent is spending your child support payments, there’s not much you can do. If the child is safe and healthy and all of their needs are being met, the court won’t get involved. If you believe your ex is neglecting your child, abusing substances, or placing your child in unsafe environments, you need to get the court involved.

The best solution in this scenario is a change to the custody agreement. You won’t have to pay child support if the children are with you all (or most) of the time. They’ll also be in a safe environment.

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What If My Co-Parent Isn’t Paying Child Support?

If you aren’t receiving child support and you’re supposed to, you need to stay on top of the situation. The court doesn’t always check to ensure your ex is paying child support on time. If your child support is more than a few days late and your ex hasn’t given you a valid reason, contact a clerk at the child support office.

Most states will issue the paying parent a delinquency notice if they’re at least 15 days late in making their payment.

Do not confront your ex yourself verbally. You can send a polite text message asking when they intend to pay their child support, but don’t engage if the situation escalates. Let the office of child support enforcement sort the situation out.

A Final Word on Child Support

Child support is payments that a parent makes to their co-parent to help care for their children. These funds don’t belong to the co-parent — they belong to the child.

Child support is different than alimony because alimony is direct financial support that belongs to your former spouse. That means a co-parent may be compelled by the court to provide both alimony and child support following their split.

While child support payments may fluctuate based on the number of children you have, each parent’s income, custody agreements, and the needs of your children, it’s important to remember above all else that child support exists to help your children thrive. And at the end of the day, that’s what really matters most.

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