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Child Support by Court Order

In all states, a child is legally entitled to receive financial support from their parents, from birth until at least the age of 18 (unless the child is emancipated, married, or joins the armed forces earlier). They are entitled to support whether the parents are married, legally separated, divorced, or were never married.

Court "orders" are the method through which the court sets the terms for child support. The court order is the 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). It instructs the parties to take some action (i.e., to make periodic child support payments in a set amount), or face penalties for violation of 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 are used to obtain support for a child

Child Support Orders as Part of the Divorce Process

When a divorcing couple has one or more children, child support 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.

Child support will be addressed again in order to reach a more permanent child support court order.

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

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 will still need to approve the agreement to ensure it complies with state child support guidelines and to 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 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 child support order can also be requested by a parent 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 parental status has been established. Either the father has acknowledged that he is the child's parent, or biological fatherhood has been shown through a paternity action.

As in divorce cases, the court will arrive at a dollar amount for child support based on 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. 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, an unmarried mother is receiving occasional child support from the father of her child with no child support order in place. If the mother finds she 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 have a child support order put in place.

A parent seeking child support may not need to go to court him/herself 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 behalf. The child support enforcement agency can then provide services to the parent seeking child support.

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.

These agencies can locate parents and can start and enforce child support collection.

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.

In some states, the order itself will state that the parent's wages will be withheld. Additional actions that may be taken include:

  • Seizure of property
  • 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 services.

Changes to Child Support Orders

Child support can be increased or decreased 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
  • The end of daycare costs
  • An increase in the cost of living

To learn more, see Changes to Child Support Orders.

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. If a parent fails to pay, there can be severe financial consequences including garnishing wages. Talk with a family law attorney near you for legal help with a child support matter.

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified child support attorney to make sure your rights are protected.

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