What Does Child Support Cover?

In many states, child support was only intended to cover the basic needs of a child, including food, housing, and clothing. The combined income of both parents ideally would give children what they need.

However, some state laws allow for child support to expand to a broad range of expenses and can include the following:

  • Basic necessities
  • Medical care
  • Educational expenses
  • Childcare
  • Transportation/travel
  • Entertainment
  • Extracurricular activities
  • College expenses

Read on to learn more about common child support expenses that are covered by a child support order to see whether they might apply to your situation.

Child Support Coverage: Typical Expenses

The costs of raising children can run high due to rising educational and health care costs. The list below addresses in greater detail some common expenses that a child support obligation might include.

However, child support laws vary greatly among the states. It's important to check the child support guidelines where you live to determine how your state determines child support coverage.

States also provide online child support calculators to help parents get an idea of how much child support the paying parent will owe. You input information, including your gross income and the number of children. However, the calculator may not include some of your monthly expenses for your child.

Basic Necessities -- Food, Clothing, Shelter

Children need food, proper clothing, and a safe and comfortable place to live. At a minimum, you can use child support to purchase groceries, snacks, beverages, and other food items. You can also buy shoes, jackets, and appropriate clothing.

Child support coverage includes costs related to the child's shelter needs. This consists of mortgage/rent, lighting, telephone, internet, and utility bills.

Medical Care

Most states require divorced or separated parents to carry some form of health insurance for their children. Typically, the parent with better employee-covered benefits will be required to carry the medical, dental, and/or vision insurance plan.

Uninsured Medical Expenses

Monthly child support payments may or may not be set up to let the parties share uninsured or "extraordinary" medical expenses. Where a state guideline formula addresses this, it may be called medical support.

In Ohio, for example, each child support order comes with a monthly payment for child support and a monthly payment for medical support.

In any case, parents are usually ordered to share the child's "extraordinary" medical expenses or out-of-pocket medical costs through a percentage formula split. For example, if the parties made the same income for child support purposes, that would be a 50/50 split.

These child health care expenses exceed what is covered in the health care insurance plan that covers the child. Expenses here may include:

  • Co-pays
  • Deductibles
  • Costs of surgery or other procedures

Depending on the state law, parents must also split the cost of additional medical care that may not be covered by a medical insurance plan. In many circumstances, this might include:

  • Dental work
  • Orthodontic braces
  • Eyeglasses
  • Special health care costs (especially if a child has pre-existing "special needs")

If these types of out-of-pocket expenses are not set up to be covered in the child support/medical support payments, then the parties need to share information and reimburse one another as appropriate. Often, the parties' divorce decree or the court's child support order will provide direction.

Educational Fees (School Fees, Supplies, and Related Costs)

Education is not free. Even if a child does not attend a private school and they're in the public school system, there are several fees to pay. Parents encounter various costs to support school-aged children. It is reasonable for child support payments to cover school needs. Some of the school-related costs include:

  • School clothes/uniforms
  • Tuition fees (where applicable)
  • Textbooks
  • Lunch Money
  • Private tutors

Parties need to investigate whether these types of expenses are accounted for in their state's child support guidelines. If not, they may find it appropriate to separately agree on a percentage split for these items, much like they do for out-of-pocket health care costs.

Childcare

If one or both parents are unable to care for their child due to work-related issues, then child support may cover the costs of childcare expenses, including daycare services, babysitters, nannies, or other childcare costs and fees. Childcare during summer months, spring break, and some holidays can also qualify for childcare coverage. Many state guidelines allow parents to incorporate the cost of predictable childcare expenses in the child support calculation.

Placing the proportionate share of childcare expenses in the child support calculation will often lead to higher monthly child support payments. An advantage to incorporating childcare expenses would be that the parties don't need to settle up each month separately. A disadvantage would be that when the child shifts from daycare to school/after-school care, where costs will be lower, the parents need to come back to court to modify the child support order.

Transportation/Travel

Since children need to get from one place to another safely, child support can be adjusted to allow for basic transportation and travel cost. The cost to maintain a car includes gas fees, car payments, registration, and insurance. This also covers the cost of riding a bus or other forms of transportation.

For instance, there may be cases where a child is traveling to visit the noncustodial parent in another area. Oftentimes, the child support guidelines may not provide a formula for these types of expenses. Some parents will acknowledge these expenses by agreeing on a deviation in guideline child support.

Entertainment

Some courts may hold that a child is entitled to basic entertainment, which includes access to computers, television programs, games, and the internet, as well as visits to movie theaters, amusement parks, camping trips, and other outings.

Child support formulas rarely have a way to estimate appropriate monthly amounts for entertainment and factor that into the support equation. Therefore, parties can agree to adjust child support to pay for a child's age-appropriate entertainment desires with explicit terms. This could be a deviation in the child support amount or an agreement to split certain entertainment items 50/50, etc.

Extracurricular Activities -- Summer Camps, Sports Activities, and More

Child support coverage can incorporate a child's extracurricular activities -- typically those that fall outside of regular school hours, such as after-school programs/classes, summer camp, sports activities, clubs (for example, Girl Scouts), and other non-school related activities. If the child support formula in your state does not cover these expenses, consider working out an agreed formula and adding it to your court order.

College Expenses

In some instances, child support guidelines may account for a child's college expenses. Many states reason that a child's education shouldn't suffer because of their parent's divorce or separation. These states will typically require a noncustodial parent to contribute to the cost of college, even after the child has reached the age of majority if the child is attending full-time and hasn't yet graduated.

Most states set the age of 18 or the status of being 18 and a high school graduate as the natural termination date for child support.

However, in New York State, the child support order will extend until the child reaches the age of 21 unless they emancipate earlier. For example, if a child has completed four years of college before age 21, then emancipation may occur earlier.

New York's child support emancipation date is in contrast to the emancipation date for child custody matters. At age 18, the adult child no longer has to comply with the child custody and parenting time terms of the parents' court order.

If you are in a state that does not require a contribution to college costs, then you can consider setting out additional terms in your divorce decree or parentage court order to address this. If you reach an agreement, make sure the terms entered into the court order are clear and detailed.

You may also want to consider when these obligations terminate since some children may take more than four years to earn a college degree. Setting a maximum amount per semester for each parent is also a good idea, as college costs vary dramatically from school to school.

Additional Considerations

All states have established child support guidelines to determine the amount of child support that the law requires a parent to pay. Courts consider a variety of factors, including:

  • A parent's income and ability to pay
  • The financial needs of the child
  • The amount of support needed to maintain a child's existing standard of living (if possible)
  • The number of children of each parent
  • Designations as to primary custodian and the exercise of parenting time

Courts don't require parents who receive child support to prove that the child support payments go toward specific expenses or activities. The assumption is that parents with physical custody of a child are paying for the necessary expenses to raise the child. Courts might take exception in cases where a child's basic needs are not met, although support payments are current.

When a child's needs change, or there's a significant change in a parent's circumstances, such as the loss of a job, it may be necessary for a parent to file for a modification of existing child support. When a parent acts quickly to modify the support after a change in circumstance, the process can be more effective than if they hesitate.

Not Sure What Child Support Covers for Your Children? An Attorney Can Help

Each parent should provide financial support for their child's food, shelter, and medical care, in addition to other child-related expenses that child support payments may or may not include.

If you're thinking of filing to establish a child support order or modify one, you should consider having an advocate on your side. They can help you determine how to obtain an order that is fair and appropriate for your child. Learn more by contacting an experienced child support attorney in your area today.

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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 

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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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