Child Support by Court Order

State law gives minor children the right to financial support from their parents. The financial support pays for things like food, clothes, and housing. It can also pay for other expenses such as medical support, including health insurance. It can also include child care or day care costs. 

The child support right is in effect from birth until at least the age of 18. That is, unless the child becomes emancipated, married, or joins the armed forces. It can go until age 19 for unmarried, full-time high school students. The married status of the parents doesn't affect this right.

What Are Court Orders?

The court uses "court orders" to set the terms for child support. The court order provides a basis for child support enforcement and child support collections actions.

In legal terms, an "order" is a command by a judge (usually a family court judge). The judge directs the parties to act. For example, the judge will direct them to make monthly child support payments and take penalties if they violate the order.

Creation of Child Support Court Orders

Though specific procedures may vary from state to state, a child support order is usually created in one of three situations:

  1. As part of the divorce process
  2. When an unmarried parent seeks child support
  3. When a state child support agency's services obtain support on behalf of a child

Child Support Orders as Part of the Divorce Process

When a couple divorces, they may attend a court date. The child support obligation will be one of the first issues addressed. This may be with a temporary order for child support or in an expedited hearing to consider temporary child support.

Divorce can have a devastating impact on family economics. A custodial parent may not have sufficient income or as high of an earning capacity as the other parent. They may be in serious financial straits if child support is not received soon. Without support, children suffer, and the state has an interest in addressing the child's needs quickly. The court can also award alimony or spousal support in some cases.

When finalizing the issue of custody of the child, and parenting time agreement, the family court judge will also decide the non-custodial parent's child support payment.

Child Support Agreements

It's also possible that divorcing spouses may reach a settlement agreement on child support out of court. In most states, the family court judge must still approve the agreement to ensure it complies with state child support guidelines. They will also ensure that it results in an enforceable child support order. Once approved, the agreement will serve as the basis for a child support order entered by the court.

State child support guidelines determine the amount a parent will pay based on a formula that considers the parents' respective incomes, the number of children they have together, and the percentage of time the children spend with each parent. The child support amount depends on these factors and your unique situation.

The family court will put a child support order in place, ordering the non-custodial parent to pay a certain amount of money per month toward the child's financial support.

Child Support Court Orders and Unmarried Parents

A parent can also request a child support order when the mother and father were never married. In such cases, the custodial parent can go to family court or a trial court of general jurisdiction (like a district court or a state's superior court) to request that a child support order be put in place.

The court will usually enter a child support order only after the parentage has been established. Either the father has acknowledged that he is the child's parent, or a paternity action has shown biological fatherhood.

As in divorce cases, the court will arrive at a dollar amount for child support. The amount must use the state's child support guidelines.

Child Support Court Orders and State Services

Every state has a department or agency that provides child support enforcement services and child support programs. That state agency may be a smaller branch of a larger state organization, i.e., the District of Columbia Attorney General's Office, Division of Child Support. It could also be its own state agency, i.e., California's Department of Child Support Services.

In almost all states, a parent seeking enforcement or collection services for unpaid child support cannot receive assistance from these agencies unless there is a child support order in place. For example, say an unmarried mother receives occasional child support from the father of her child with no child support case. If the mother needs support for the child every month, not just when the father feels like it, or the father stops making support payments, the mother will need to go to court to put a child support order in place. The agency could give the mother in this example a referral for an attorney.

However, a parent seeking child support may not need to go to court to get a child support order. A county or local branch of the state child support services/enforcement agency may go before the court on the parent's and child's behalf. For instance, the agency obtains an order on behalf of a parent who receives public assistance.

The Function of Child Support Court Orders

Once a child support order is entered by a court, that order becomes an enforceable legal document which, among other things:

  • Identifies the parties to the order (who pays support and who receives support)
  • Establishes the amount of child support to be paid and the frequency of payment
  • Sets the procedure for payment (paycheck deductions, direct payment, or other options)
  • Authorizes penalties for violation (wage garnishment, imposition of fines, etc.)

Enforcement of Child Support Court Orders

If a parent fails to pay child support, collections and enforcement of a child support order can take a number of forms. The law establishes various ways to collect past due child support (child support arrears).

In some states, the order itself will state that the parent's wages will be withheld. In addition to income withholding, other actions that the state allows include:

  • Garnishment of bank accounts
  • Seizure of property (liens on real estate)
  • Interception of tax refunds

The court may hold the non-paying parent "in contempt of court" for violating the terms of the court order. Punishment for violating a court order can include loss of a driver's license, a professional license, and even jail time.

Remember that in most states, an actual child support order must be in place before any enforcement/collection action can be taken. Once a child support order is issued, the state's child support services/enforcement agency can then provide parent location, support collection, or support enforcement actions.

Changes to Child Support Orders

The court can alter an existing order. The judge may reduce or increase the amount of child support if there is a change in parental (or child) circumstances to justify the change, such as:

  • An increase or decrease in the payer's income
  • An increase in the child's needs
  • End-of-daycare costs
  • An increase in the cost of living

Seeking a Child Support Court Order? Ordered to Pay Support? Get Legal Help

When a court orders a parent to pay child support, it becomes a legally binding obligation. The law supports parents collecting past due support. If a parent doesn't pay, they can suffer severe financial consequences. Talk with a family law attorney near you for legal help with a child support matter.

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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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