Child Support Basics

When you divorce or separate from your child's other parent, the court may order the non-custodial parent to pay child support. This is not the only scenario in which such support might arise. 

Unmarried parents and the State may also file to establish paternity and child support in court. Less frequently, when neither parent has custody, the court may order them to pay child support to a third party who has custody of the child.

Child custody often controls which parent receives support and which parent pays support. In most cases, the person with physical custody of the child receives child support.

State law gives every child the legal right to child support. This means that they are entitled to financial support from their parents. Child support payments go toward the child's proper care and upbringing, regardless of who actually incurs living expenses. You can think of the expenses as groups:

  • General support: Food, clothes, shelter/mortgage/rents
  • Medical support: Medical expenses, health care, health insurance, dental expenses
  • Childcare support: Childcare costs, daycare costs

Child support payments do not often address the division of expenses for a child's extracurricular activities. Parents may address these costs separately in their parenting plan. The child support determination may be reached through the child support administrative process or through a child support case in the family court system. Your state law will govern how the case proceeds.

How Long Does Child Support Last?

In most cases, the child support obligation for the paying parent lasts until the child reaches 18 or reaches 18 and has graduated high school. The obligation extends until 19 if the child is a full-time high school student who is unmarried. Parents do not have to pay support for emancipated or self-supporting children. State laws on emancipation may vary. For example, a court may find a child emancipated when they married or joined the military at age 17.

The Government's Role in Child Support

The federal government always has a stake in how its citizens live. The care of children is no different. Nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. The U.S. has the highest rate of children living in single-parent households. This means that a household may have only one income for child-rearing. The financial strain can make parenting more difficult.

Both federal and state governments engage in the regulation of child support. Providing adequate financial support to children is an important public policy issue. In the past, there were fewer resources to assist parents in the child support process. Now state child support enforcement agencies provide assistance and take action on their own. They help parents seeking payments from non-custodial parents with an uncompromising approach.

Child Support Agencies

The department of child support services in your state can help during various stages. It depends on your state. If you receive benefits like public assistance, they can get you started. The agency can file for child support on your behalf. Once paternity and legal custody are determined, the child support agency can seek a child support withholding order. The support amount is automatically taken from the payer's paycheck. If the child support payments become delinquent, the agency can use enforcement techniques. For instance, withholding support amounts from income tax refunds, suspending a driver's license, or filing liens against real estate or personal property. They can also refer the case to a prosecutor for contempt of court proceedings. In some cases, they may pursue criminal charges for non-support of a child.

Child Support Calculator

How much child support do I pay? How much child support will I receive? These are simple questions with complex answers. You can use a child support calculator to estimate the child support amount in your case. The calculations use factors like both parents' income. You come up with the gross income figure and then use deductions (for things like health insurance premiums and mandatory union dues) for a net income. “Income" is more than just your salary. It can also include self-employment income, pensions, and alimony/spousal support. But there's no guarantee that the court will follow your calculation. The guideline calculation provides a starting point for the court. The court orders the amount of child support based on the evidence and the best interests of the child.

Child Support Orders

The family court judge begins its review based on the child support amount from the state child support guidelines. This calculation provides the amount of support the obligor (or paying parent) must pay under the state guidelines. The state uses factors including:

  • Parents' gross income from all sources
  • The amount of time that each parent spends with the child
  • The number of children supported
  • Daycare expenses
  • Health insurance expenses

Most states will provide a procedure whereby the court can adjust or deviate the child support after consideration of certain factors. In Ohio, state law provides that the court can deviate from the guideline amount if there are significant reasons. Deviations could provide an increase or a decrease in child support based on the reasons. Ohio parents who have their children overnight for 90 or more nights will automatically have a 10% reduction in the child support calculation.

If a paying parent has a high income, state laws are not likely to support an upward deviation unless the parents' combined income is greater than the maximum annual income in the child support schedule. If the custodial parent has a high income, the paying parent is still likely to pay based on the guideline calculation.

The law gives children the right to benefit from both parents' incomes. In most cases, the judge can increase or decrease the amount if there is a substantial change in circumstances. A change such as a large increase in the payer's income or the children's cost of living may qualify. The court may also find a large decrease in the custodial parent's income supports a modification. The judge can also reduce the child support amount if the circumstances justify the reduction.

Unmarried Parents and Child Support

For unmarried mothers seeking child support, you should establish parentage, if necessary. The father can also file a paternity suit. The court establishes paternity using genetic (DNA) testing. They order the "putative" (or alleged) father to submit to testing. After the court establishes paternity, they issue a child support order. This is similar to calculating child support in divorce proceedings.

Interstate Moves and Child Support

The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act allows a court to enforce a support order issued in another state. For instance, say you obtained an order in California based on California child support laws. Then your co-parent moves to New York. Your child support agency in California will help you enforce the order with the help of the child support agency in New York.

Don't Second-Guess It: Get Professional Child Support Help Today

If you're facing a potential child support issue or dispute, whether due to divorce or as a single parent, a family law attorney can help you. Getting legal advice will help you obtain the best possible result in the entry of a child support order, enforcement of an existing order, or in establishing or disproving paternity. Get started today by contacting a local child support attorney or learn more on our child support legal answers page.

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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.

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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.

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