Paying Child Support

Parents who don't have physical custody of their children must pay child support. The support payments help cover the needs of the child. Raising a child may include money for health care /health insurance and childcare.

Regardless of how the child support arrangement came to be (mutual agreement or court order), the state enforces child support. In fact, a parent who ignores a court order to meet their child support obligation could face criminal punishment. The following article covers various child support payment issues.

Child Support Payments

How you get and receive child support depends on state laws. You may have to perform tasks before you can receive payments. A state presumes that the husband is the father if the parents were married at or near the child's birth.

If parents are not married, the parentage is not automatic. You may need to take specific steps. For instance, you may take action to establish paternity. The father can sign an acknowledgment of paternity. If the paternity is in doubt, parties can use genetic testing to find the biological father. You can get help with these tasks from your state child support services agency. Check with the office of child support in your state.

Child Support Agreements

A child support agreement is a document that helps to make sure that the noncustodial parent makes child support payments to the custodial parent. The deal is made by mutual agreement or via court order.

Parents may and sometimes do agree about the child support payment. They may decide as part of a divorce agreement. Or they can agree on the support issue alone. When parents agree, they can get the court's final approval. Without a child support order, the paying parent has no legal obligation to pay child support.

All parents are responsible for the financial support of their children. But they will only suffer legal consequences for non-payment if their obligation was legally established by administrative or court order.

The agreement outlines the terms. It will usually include the following:

  • The parent who is responsible for paying the support (the obligor)
  • The amount of child support
  • The duration of the payments, which generally ends when the child has emancipated (usually 18 or graduated from high school). If the child remains a full-time high school student, then payments may end at age 19.
  • How the parties will share certain of the child's expenses. For example, medical support for out-of-pocket medical expenses; health insurance coverage; dental and vision coverage). It may also cover expenses for daycare or college, depending on the case.

Child Support Enforcement

Under certain circumstances, failing to pay court-ordered child support is a federal law crime. Parents with overdue support (arrears) can face fines and jail time. But child support enforcement most often occurs under state law.

If you have trouble getting child support payments, you can seek help from the local child support agency. Each state has a child support program that manages child support enforcement. The agency has a lot of resources to help parents get paid. They can help you locate noncustodial parents with past-due support. And they will file the enforcement actions against them.

The more information that you can provide, the better. You can submit the parent's personal information and any documentation you have. You don't need to have their birth certificate or driver's license, but you can provide their date of birth, social security number, former address, and phone number.

Here are standard enforcement methods that the state uses to collect arrears from child support obligors:

  • Wage garnishment/income withholding
  • Denial of U.S. passport
  • Interception of tax refunds
  • Freezing of bank accounts
  • Liens on property
  • Suspension of driver's license, professional license, occupational license
  • Civil contempt of court action
  • Prosecution for criminal non-support offense

Child Support and the Internal Revenue Service

According to the IRS, child support payments are not taxable income. You also cannot deduct child support as an expense if you are a noncustodial payer. It will not affect the adjusted gross income. When a custodial parent calculates their gross income to see if they have to file a tax return, they should not include child support payments.

Income and Support Orders

When a judge issues a child support order, they must follow specific state guidelines. The guidelines are "income-driven." The parent's income determines the support amount. Income includes more than simple wages and salary. Parents must understand what funds are "income" under the child support guidelines.

Some question whether the court can consider income from a new spouse for child support purposes. To the extent that the income reduces the expenses of the custodial or non-custodial parent, it may impact the circumstances of the current order. This is a question that is addressed differently state by state. This is not the same as alimony or spousal support. Most states put alimony/spousal support in the income category.

Receiving Disability Payments and Child Support

If you receive disability money based on your past employment, it is considered income for purposes of child support. For example, let's say you worked for a government agency for 20 years before becoming disabled, and the agency now pays you for disability. The disability income is meant to replace your wage income.

If the disability money you receive is a means-tested public assistance (based on income), it is not income for child support. One example is Supplement Security Income (SSI) received from the Social Security Administration. SSI is a means-based benefit to recipients with limited income and resources.

In contrast, Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) is income for child support purposes because it is not means-based. Instead, the benefits depend on the person's employment before becoming disabled. When a parent obtains SSDI, they may qualify for a dependent benefit for their child. In such instances, the state child support formula will use an offset of the child benefit received in calculating any child support going forward.

A New Job and Child Support Modification

You must pay the support amount in your original order if you're a noncustodial parent with a job change. The amount of support does not change automatically. You can petition the court to change a child support order to reflect the difference in your income. If you can't afford to pay, you can ask the court to lower the payments. The custodial parent can also request a modification.

Finding an Experienced Child Support Attorney

You can search the FindLaw Lawyer Directory to find an attorney or law firm to help you resolve your child support case. If you cannot afford a private attorney, you can research whether low-cost or free legal aid may be available in your area. Courthouse self-help centers and state administrations that oversee child support enforcement may provide forms and review paperwork for completeness. Still, they cannot give you legal help.

Only an experienced attorney can provide legal advice specific to your situation. Be sure to take the time to investigate and interview an attorney before hiring them to handle your case.

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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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