Child Support Laws

"Child support" is a continuous payment ordered by the courts. The money is used for the financial support of minor children.

This section tells you how to receive child support and how to make child support payments. You will find information about how to modify child support payments, how to enforce child support, and how to calculate child support. In addition, there are links to state child support laws and guidelines, and helpful tips on hiring a private attorney to help you with your case.

Child support can be a stressful and contentious topic for parents. You might be recently separated and need money to support your child. Or you're trying to enforce a child support order against a parent who refuses to pay.

You may even disagree with how your child's other parent spends child support. You might want to know if they are doing anything illegal.

You may be asking yourself questions such as:

  • Do you disagree with the way that your co-parent is spending child support? 
  • Are the other parent's actions legal?
  • How do you start the process of modifying a child support order?
  • Do you have to pay support until they finish high school? 
  • What if the child is emancipated or self-supporting?

You can find answers to these difficult questions. FindLaw's Child Support Section has critical information on many child support issues.

When To Change Child Support

Maybe you feel a new support order is necessary due to a change in your financial situation but don't know where to start. Or you wonder how a change in child custody or parenting time impacts the order.

FindLaw's Child Support section has in-depth information on dozens of child support-related issues. This section provides information on:

  • How to get child support and make child support payments
  • How to modify child support
  • How courts calculate and enforce child support
  • Consequences of not paying child support

There are links to state child support laws, guidelines, and helpful tips on hiring a lawyer to help you with your child support case. The duration of your child support order might have on impact on if and when you want to make changes.

Child Support Duration

Every parent must financially support their minor children. This is in the form of child support when parents are not together. Child support pays for mortgage payments or rent, food, clothes, educational expenses, and childcare expenses. Payments also include medical support for medical expenses and health insurance.

Some child support orders include provisions for reimbursement of health care costs, such as health insurance premiums. The child support payments don't go directly to the child. Instead, they help to support the needs of the child.

The duty to provide financial support ends when a child turns 18 in most cases. Or you can stop paying if the child is emancipated or self-supporting. A court decree may extend a child support order if a child is older than 18 but remains a full-time high school student.

Steps To Take Before Obtaining Child Support

Before applying for child support, be sure to follow these steps, if necessary:

  • Locate the other parent if you don't know where they are
  • Establish legal fatherhood or paternity
  • Determine the appropriate amount for child support using your state's child support guidelines

Getting Child Support

If you haven't applied for child support yet, there are important first steps to take. You could make a child support agreement with your co-parent outside court, such as through mediation or informal negotiations. You could also obtain a child support order from a court. Either way, you need to do the following:

  • Know or find the location of your co-parent
  • Establish paternity (parentage) if necessary
  • Determine the appropriate amount for child support using your state's guidelines

If you need help with some of these tasks, you may be able to get it from your child support services agency. They are an excellent resource for tracking down parents with overdue child support. But you can sometimes use them in these early stages before you have a child support order. Under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, states created programs to locate non-custodial parents and to establish paternity.

States have resources to find your co-parent if you don't know where they are. Provide the agency with as much information (name, last known address, Social Security number) as you have about the other parent. Your local child support enforcement office is also a good source for low-income parents who receive public assistance, like:

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Social Security (SSI)
  • Medicaid

Obtaining Child Support via Agreement

You can make a child support agreement outside of a court setting. You can meet with your co-parent and decide on child support. However, any agreements parents make without the court aren't legally binding. This means that the paying parent isn't forced to pay. They are not penalized when they don't pay.

Obtaining Child Support via Court Order

You can make a child support agreement outside of court. But the family court is the only way to establish a legal obligation for the parent to pay. In other words, if you want the paying parent to face penalties if they don't pay, you have to get the court involved. You must pursue a child support order from the family court. The family law judge in your case will direct the parent to meet their obligated child support payments. Then the court punishes them if they don't.

The process varies by state and depends on your situation. For example, if you're getting a divorce, child support issues are part of that process. Or you can get help from a child support services agency.

Child Support Services

The federal government gives funds to each state for child support services. The federal government manages these programs. Every state must have a child support enforcement program that complies with federal regulations. The federal office of child support enforcement goes by the name of the Office of Child Support Enforcement. It does not provide support. Instead, it manages the child support agencies for the state, local, and tribe programs.

Local and state governments have child support agencies with assistance programs to help parents. The child support service agency serves many purposes.

Generally, the first step is to provide a caseworker. The caseworker guides the parent through the many resources provided by the agency. An agency caseworker might file for child support on behalf of a custodial parent and child who are TANF recipients. TANF stands for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Or the agency might hand out a referral for a private attorney.

After the parent files their child support case, the agencies help to enforce the order. Various services that they can help with include the following:

  • Locating parents
  • Establishing paternity
  • Filing for court orders for child support
  • Requesting court orders for medical support
  • Collecting and paying child support
  • Enforcing child support orders
  • Enforcing alimony/spousal support orders
  • Modifying child support order terms

Child Support Payments: The Basics

If you have a child who lives primarily at another parent's home, whether by your own agreement or a custody order, you will most likely have to pay child support to that individual. In some cases, you can also pay support when there is split custody.

Put aside feelings about your fellow co-parent, and remember that the payments benefit your child. Ignoring an order to pay child support can lead to serious consequences. Knowing how much to pay and ensuring that it gets to the other parent on time is important.

Child Support Payments: Paying Parent

Your state's child support agency coordinates child support payments. A common payment method withholds the support amount from your paycheck and pays it to the state agency. The state agency distributes it to the custodial parent.

Custody arrangements impact child support. If you have a child who lives primarily at another parent's home, you will most likely owe that person child support. Even if you don't get along with your child's other parent, these child support payments help raise your child.

Ignoring a child support order can lead to severe consequences, so knowing how much to pay and how to submit it to the other parent is essential. You do not pay the other parent directly. Child support is taken through income withholding via employers in many cases. The court will issue an order for child support with an amount of child support that fulfills the child's needs. If your employer does not begin income withholding or you are self-employed, contact the local child support agency and ensure you know when and how to make payments.

Child Support Payments: Receiving Parent

Your state's child support agency facilitates child support payments. There are a few ways to receive child support payments. This includes:

  • Direct deposit
  • Electronic payment card
  • Check

Child Support Calculations

Each state has child support guidelines that help judges set the amount of child support. The state law guidelines consider custody arrangements and how much time the parent spends with the children. Parenting time also includes the time an obligor parent has overnights with their children.

The parent's income is probably the most important factor for calculating child support. The court must follow the guidelines when it issues child support orders, using the “best interests of the child" standard.

States provide an online child support calculator. You plug in information to get an estimate of the child support obligation. Before using this tool, gather information such as your pay stubs, tax returns, birth certificates, and other legal documents.

The state child support guidelines have rules to make child support calculations. The court follows these child support guidelines to get a child support amount. The amount of support can change if the factors change.

The state guidelines are based on many factors, which may include:

  • Parents' net income (income includes self-employment income, salary, wages, Social Security benefits, worker's compensation, unemployment, and alimony and spousal support)
  • Parents' gross income
  • The amount of time that the child spends with the parent (including custody arrangements)
  • Income tax filing status of the parents
  • Expenses such as health care and childcare
  • Health insurance premium costs (if applicable)
  • The number of children supported by the order
  • Other child support obligations
  • Spousal support/alimony


There aren't many deductions allowed on child support worksheets. See the following deductions:

  • Health insurance
  • Mandatory pension contributions
  • Mandatory union dues
  • Medicare
  • Property tax
  • Social Security

Child Support Modification

Over time, people's financial situations often change, sometimes for the better, but unfortunately, not always. If you can't afford the child support you've ordered or agreed to pay, it may be time for a modification.

Either parent can ask the court for the change. Suppose your income has changed. You must inform the court that the financial information you swore to in your child support affidavit is different. You must update the income worksheets you submitted.

Your financial situation may change over time. Problems arise when child support is too high relative to the paying parent's income. If you can't afford the child support amount, consider a modification. You can file a motion with the court. You can add updated information to the child support worksheet and resubmit it as proof of your current financial condition.

Either party may ask the court to modify the order due to a substantial change of circumstances. Examples may include:

  • Increase or decrease in parents' income
  • New or additional job
  • Loss of job and inability to find work at the same wage
  • Receiving public assistance
  • Current incarceration
  • Permanent disability
  • Changes in family size (new children to support)
  • Deployment to active military service

Child Support Enforcement

Unpaid child support is a problem for everyone involved. If you're a parent with a court order but aren't receiving payments, you can seek help from your local or state child support services agency.

When a parent tries to collect past due child support, they can get help from their local office of child support enforcement agency. The agencies have different names in different states. It may be under the “Department of Health and Human Services" or “Division of Child Support Enforcement."

Trying to avoid child support by being paid under the table can hurt you in the long run. Your child support office may have investigators on staff who can identify your income sources.

What happens if you don't pay your court-ordered child support?

Depending on where you live, the government has a number of tools at its disposal for enforcing child support orders, including the following:

  • Contempt of court
  • Denying passports
  • Garnishing your wages
  • Intercepting your income tax refund
  • Placing liens on your property
  • Revoking your driver's license
  • Suspending your occupational/professional license
  • Referring your case for criminal non-support charges

Interstate Child Support Enforcement

People are moving more than ever. After getting a divorce, a parent might change location and take the child with them. But an out-of-state move doesn't change a child support obligation.

You can enforce a child support order on a non-custodial parent who resides in another state. But you must seek help from the other state's child support agency.

For example, you and your co-parent live in South Carolina. You get a child support order in South Carolina. Then they move to Texas. You may ask the child support agency in Texas to help enforce or modify the prior child support order.

What Happens if You Don't Pay Child Support?

As soon as a judge issues a court order for child support, it becomes a legal obligation. When you disobey a court order, including a child support obligation, you can be in "contempt of court." The court uses this as a method to enforce child support payment. The court also enforces other court orders, such as an order for child custody or spousal support.

Parents often use tactics to avoid paying child support. For example, they may remain unemployed or be paid under the table. However, this can hurt you in the long run. Depending on where you live, the courts have a number of tools at their disposal for enforcing child support orders.

This includes the following:

  • Garnishing your paycheck (wage withholding)
  • Intercepting your tax refunds
  • Revoking your driver's license
  • Revoking your passport
  • Seizing your property
  • Criminal prosecution

When your assets are seized, the state could take away money from:

  • Bank accounts
  • Commissions
  • Rental income
  • Royalties
  • Tax returns

Have Questions About Child Support? Get a Lawyer's Help.

Child support represents an essential part of a child's life. However, dealing with it can be overwhelming for the parents. If you're having issues with receiving or paying child support, you should get legal help. Consider turning to an experienced local child support lawyer for legal advice and determining your best course of action.

Was this helpful?