Child Support Eligibility

Parents worry about their children and must ensure they can provide for them. You want to receive child support payments from the other parent to help with the daily expenses and necessary costs, like health insurance, daycare, and child care expenses. 

But what factors determine child support eligibility? Read on for critical information about what you must do to be eligible for child support.

Why Child Support Is Important

Both parents have a legal duty to provide financial support for their children. Typically, the parent who doesn't have primary custody of the child makes child support payments to the custodial parent for their share of the child's financial needs. The court (using state child support guidelines) sets a child support amount to ensure that your child has enough money for the basic needs of food, clothes, shelter, and other necessities, including health insurance and child care.

Depending on state law, a specific child support order remains active until the child turns 18 or 19 if the child is unmarried and still in high school full-time. Also, the child support obligation ends if a child becomes emancipated. Under certain circumstances, the court may order you to continue paying child support after the child reaches adulthood.

Child Support Eligibility Requirements

It's essential to understand the basic legal requirements that a parent or legal guardian must meet to receive child support payments from the other parent. In a typical child support situation, the “obligor," or the parent who provides the support, is generally the non-custodial parent who doesn't live with the child most of the time. The obligor pays the custodial parent or the "obligee." However, child support is not guaranteed. Specific conditions must apply. To be eligible, you must have the following:

  • Legal relationship
  • Legal obligation
  • Custody

Legal Relationship

If you're trying to get child support payments on behalf of a child, you must have a legal relationship with that child. Usually, this means the child's biological parent. However, adoptive parents or legal guardians also meet this requirement.

Legal Obligation

The individual you're trying to obtain money from must be legally obligated to support the child. The child support obligation comes from either a court order or by agreement.


The legal relationship connects to custody. To be eligible for support, you must have custody of your child. Generally, that means "sole primary custody," but that's not always true.

Establishing Paternity

When a child is born from a married couple, they are the presumptive parents. A husband is the presumptive or "putative" father, and he has paternity rights and obligations. The court also establishes paternity with a paternity test. Either parent can seek a DNA test by petitioning the court.

Child Support Agreements

A child support agreement is a legal document establishing the terms of the child support payments. It is reached by voluntary agreement with parents or through a court order as part of a family law action, such as a divorce or paternity proceeding. The contract may include the following:

  • The parent responsible for the child support payments (the obligor)
  • The amount of child support
  • The timing of the child support payments
  • The number of children to be supported
  • The length of the agreement
  • The methods of payment
  • The requirements for modifying the agreement later (what to do if there's a substantial change in one or both parents' income)
  • The kinds of expenses that the parent can use the child support for (medical expenses, educational expenses, health care, after-school activities)

Custodial Parents

The court designates a "custodial" parent by its order (in the case of a family court proceeding, like a divorce or a child custody dispute). In a single-parent household, that parent is the custodial parent when the other parent has made no effort toward seeking custody.

While child support can vary from state to state, the parent receiving child support is usually the custodial parent. The custodial parent has primary physical custody of the child, where the parent lives with the child most of the time. They are chiefly responsible for the child's daily care (arranging daycare, taking them to school and social activities, etc.). Even if the other parent has liberal time with the child and "joint physical custody," the court considers the parent with more time as the custodial parent.

Split Custody

50-50 shared custody determinations are rare. Dividing the time parents spend with their children equally is difficult. In a joint custody situation where the child spends equal time living with each parent, the court considers both parents as custodial parents. The court won't order either parent to pay the other, especially if incomes are similar. The court may order one parent to pay child support to the other if there is a significant disparity in parental income.

Questions To Ask About Child Support Eligibility

A custodial parent is not guaranteed to receive child support. You must address these issues first. Ask the following questions:

  • Can the court secure payment of child support? Does the custodial parent know the whereabouts of the other parent? Do they have a home address and the name of an employer? A custodial parent should find out if they're entitled to free assistance locating the other birthparent from their state's child support services agency.
  • Is paternity legally established? If the parents were unmarried, a DNA paternity test may be required.
  • Has the custodial parent received a child support order in family court? Until the parent has one, their state child support agency cannot help them enforce the order in most cases.

Child Support Services Agencies

Federal law sets up state child support programs. Child support agencies in your state are critical resources. Parents can complete preliminary tasks to get child support. For example, if you're on public assistance, the child support agency will open a child support case for you.

If you don't receive government benefits, need to open a child support case, or have an existing order, your state child support agency can still likely help. The organization can also give you referrals for other points of assistance.

The agencies' child support programs can provide parent location assistance, child support collections, or child support enforcement services, including help receiving current support and support that is in arrears (past due).

Nonpayment of child support can result in severe sanctions, including:

  • Mandatory income withholding
  • Medical insurance coverage assignment
  • Loss of professional licenses
  • Loss of driver's license
  • Property liens
  • Revocation of passport
  • Take money from your state or federal tax refunds (referred to as "income tax intercept")

General Considerations for Determining Child Support Eligibility

The court considers other factors for determining child support eligibility, including:

  • The needs of the child
  • The physical and emotional state of the child
  • The income of both parents
  • The financial condition of both parents
  • The standard of living the child would have received if the parents had remained together
  • The number of children and the ages of the children
  • The custodial parent's financial resources/needs

What Are the Application Requirements?

The child support requirements depend on the specific state. However, there is general information that you need to supply in most cases:

  • Information about the child: The child's full name, date of birth, and social security number
  • Personal information: Your full name, date of birth, social security number, contact information, and the full name, date of birth, and social security number for the other parent
  • Financial information: Both parents' income and other sources if they apply, including spousal support/alimony, workers' compensation, lottery winnings, expenses, assets for both parents; and monthly costs for work-related child care, health insurance for the child, and ongoing medical expenses for the child, such as braces or mental health treatment
  • Documentation: Legal documents, including paternity order, birth certificate, divorce decree, custody order, and any other documents that impact your case

Learn More About Your Child Support Eligibility. Talk to an Attorney

Support orders can help ensure that your child receives the care they need. Do you need help determining your eligibility for child support? If you do, consider speaking with an experienced family law attorney who can provide legal assistance with this and all of your family law issues.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Some states allow you to set up child support with forms and court processes
  • You may need legal help to set up or modify child support arrangements
  • If there is conflict, an attorney can advise if the other parent’s actions are legal 

Get tailored advice about paying or receiving child support. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

Find a local attorney

Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child support arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

Start Planning