Getting Child Support

Every child deserves support from both parents. Whether parents live together or apart, each parent plays a key role in the child's life. Family law often steps in to ensure that a non-custodial parent pays for the child's needs. 

The court does this by mandating child support payments from the non-custodial parent to the custodial parent. These payments usually occur monthly or bi-weekly, depending on the arrangement between the parents.

The subject of child support is an important and often difficult issue for many parents. What is a fair amount to pay? Who determines the child support payment? It can be a difficult endeavor for both parties. Parents with primary custody of a child, referred to as "custodial parents," often are eligible to receive child support payments from the child's other parent.

The following articles cover eligibility, determining the amount of child support, the difference between support by agreement and support by court order, changes to child support, and other issues of importance to those seeking child support.

Child Support: A Brief Overview

Child support is a crucial system that ensures children receive the financial assistance they deserve from both parents, even if they are living separately. There is a child support amount set according to state guidelines, considering several factors. The primary aim of child support services is to safeguard the child's interests, ensuring their daily needs, education, and overall well-being are met. Child support helps cover the child's needs, like food, clothing, and school supplies.

State law determines the child support guidelines within each jurisdiction. This sets the amount of support required. Both parents' gross income and the needs of the child come into play. The child support program in each state ensures that children receive the support they deserve.

It's essential to understand that child support and spousal support, often termed “alimony," are distinct. Child support is purely for the child's needs. Alimony is for the financial support of the other spouse after separation or divorce. The court may mandate both types of support, but they serve different purposes.

Establishing Parentage

Before setting a child support amount, parentage must be established. This means proving who the child's parents are. Sometimes, genetic testing is used. This can be done by taking a simple DNA test. Other times, the parent listed on the birth certificate is considered to have parentage. Establishing this connection is a crucial step in many child support cases.

Setting a Child Support Amount

To determine the child support amount, various details are considered. The court may look at the couples' income and other relevant documentation. This ensures the amount set aligns with the financial capabilities of the non-custodial parent and the needs of the child. The state agency, often referred to as the Office of Child Support, manages these determinations. Parents can approach their local office for guidance on how to initiate child support processes.

Child Support and Uninsured Medical Expenses

Medical support is a part of child support. Child support may be used to pay for uninsured or "extraordinary" medical expenses. Extraordinary medical expenses may include any out-of-pocket medical costs that exceed the cost of a basic health care insurance plan, including co-pays, deductibles, and surgery costs.

In other words, when a child's medical expenses aren't covered by insurance, the non-custodial parent might have to help pay. This can be for doctor visits, medicine, or other healthcare needs. Both parents should always keep the child's well-being first.

In many circumstances, child support may be used to cover these and other expenses, such as dental braces, casts, eyeglasses, and other special health care costs, especially if a child has pre-existing special medical needs. Most states require both parents to split the cost of additional medical care, depending on their state's guidelines. Cosmetic issues are rarely covered unless they present a health risk.

Function of Child Support Orders

A child support order is a legal document. Once a court enters a child support order, the order becomes an enforceable legal document which, among other things, identifies:

  • The parties to the order, noting who pays support and who receives support
  • Establishes the amount of child support to be paid, including frequency of payment
  • Sets the procedure for payment via paycheck deductions, direct payment, or other options
  • Authorizes penalties for violations such as wage garnishment or imposition of fines

To get an order, a child support case starts in family court. The child support enforcement agency can help with this process. If a parent doesn't pay, the child support enforcement agency can take action. This might include income withholding or placing liens on a bank account. Read on to learn more about what happens when the party ordered to pay does not.

Changes to Child Support Orders

There are many circumstances that would allow you to ask for an early review to modify existing child support orders, including:

  • Unemployment or a layoff from work for 30 days or longer
  • A permanent disability
  • A significant decrease or increase in income
  • Incarceration or institutionalization for the duration of the child's minority with no income or assets available to pay child support
  • Active military duty
  • An increase or decrease in the cost of child care or health insurance

Simply put, child support can be increased if there is a material change in circumstances. These include circumstances such as an increase in the payer's income, a decrease in the custodial parent's income, an increase in the child's needs, or an increase in the cost of living. Similarly, the amount of support can be reduced if circumstances justify the reduction.

Failure To Make Mandated Child Support Payments

If the non-custodial parent fails to make the mandated payments, they can face serious consequences. Falling behind in payments is termed as being in arrears. The child support enforcement agency in the state can take action against parents in arrears.

Some of these enforcement methods include intercepting federal income tax refunds or suspending the parent's driver's license. It might also include holding the parent in contempt of court, which can lead to jail time. If the parent is held in jail under a contempt of court charge, the judge will give them a lump sum amount to pay in order to be released from jail. If the amount is paid, they do not have to complete the jail sentence.

Procedure for Ending Child Support

Child support usually lasts until the child graduates from high school or turns 18. If the child turns 18 before graduation, some states may end support then. If the child decides to drop out of high school, the support might end as well. In most states, if the child turns 18 during their senior year of high school, support continues until they graduate, but only up to age 19.

Child support payments do not end automatically. The person who is obligated to make child support payments must request for their child support obligation to end once the child reaches the age of majority or a minor child becomes emancipated. Some state court orders plan for this and state in the order the circumstances under which child support ceases.

To find out whether your obligation to pay child support is ending, you can contact the child support agency in your state for assistance in determining your child support end date, or speak with an attorney to discuss your specific rights and responsibilities. It's essential to check state law and get legal advice.

Hiring a Child Support Attorney

Legal matters can be confusing. If you have questions, a child support attorney knowledgeable about family law can help. If you are a parent needing help getting child support, modifying an existing child support order, or collecting unpaid child support, a child support lawyer can help. They can help explain child support enforcement, rights, and responsibilities.

Use FindLaw to hire a local child support lawyer to set child support obligations, enforce child support orders, and to address any other child support issues.

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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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