When two parents separate, divorce or otherwise live apart, one parent may be required to make child support payments to the other. Child support is designed to provide for a child's basic needs, including food, clothing, shelter, health care and education. Sometimes, courts award additional amounts for vacation, camp expenses, religious or private school costs and other "add-ons." Each state has its own guidelines to determine who is responsible for child support, and how much they should pay. In fact, identical factual circumstances can have very different outcomes from state to state. A family law attorney can help determine how the law will apply to the facts and circumstances of your case. Family lawyers can also help ensure that the child support arrangement is fair, and that child support payments are made.
Who Pays Child Support?
When a child is born out of wedlock, the first step toward establishing a support order is confirming paternity. All states have procedures to establish paternity such as voluntary acknowledgement at birth and DNA testing.
Generally, only biological and adoptive parents have child custody rights, and a corresponding legal obligation to support the child. A small number of states may require stepparents to pay support, though most do not unless the stepparent has also adopted the child.
When one parent has sole custody of a child, the non-custodial parent normally pays child support. When the child alternates living with both parents, known as joint physical custody, one parent may be required to make child support payments to the other. This largely depends on the relative incomes of the parents as well as the time each parent spends with the child.
The issue of child support can be contentious. In order to ensure that the child is provided for and a fair agreement is reached, it can be beneficial to work with an experienced family law attorney.
How Is Child Support Calculated?
Every state has its own unique set of formulas and guidelines for calculating parental income and child support. Some states apply a simple formula based on the income of the parent who will be paying the support, and the number of children. Other times, they may factor in:
- Custodial parent's income (known in some states as the income shares model)
- Age, health and educational needs of the child
- Standard of living the child would have enjoyed had the parents stayed together
Depending on the judge and jurisdiction, parents with special circumstances may be successful at persuading a judge to go above or below the guidelines.
Child support can be modified when there is a change of circumstances. Many states even provide for automatic reviews of the case and cost of living adjustments every few years. If the parents agree privately to a change in support, they must submit the changes to the court in order for them to be enforceable.
There are plenty of child support calculators available on the Internet that can give you a rough estimate of what child support would be in your case. However, if you think you might be obligated to pay or entitled to receive child support, you should consult a family law attorney for a more accurate evaluation of the amount that could be awarded in your particular case.
Collection of Child Support Payments
Not all parents who are entitled to receive child support are able to collect. Similarly, not all parents who are legally obligated are willing and/or able to pay. Generally, the parent owing support pays the child's custodian directly, or the support can be withheld from income. If child support becomes overdue, it can be collected by:
- Garnishing federal and state income tax refunds
- Placing liens on real and personal property
- Compelling the sale of said property
Child support enforcement is a problem that is taken very seriously by federal, state and local governments. The consequences of failing to pay child support may include:
- Reporting to the credit bureau
- Suspension of professional and driver's licenses
- Freezing/seizing of bank accounts
- Denial of passport
- Criminal prosecution
Despite the best efforts of those involved, government services are often ineffective in the toughest cases, including many interstate enforcement cases.* Eighty-nine billion dollars in past-due child support is currently uncollected in the United States.
If you are having trouble collecting child support, an attorney experienced in family law can determine your legal recourse and help you collect the child support payments that are due to you.
When Does the Child Support Obligation End?
Child support obligations continue until a child is either:
- Legally emancipated
- Goes on active military duty
- Reaches the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state
If the non-custodial parent dies, the child support obligation does not end; the custodial parent can collect support from the estate of the deceased parent. Jurisdictions are divided on the issue of college tuition, partly because it is well into the future in many cases and carries a potentially enormous price tag. However, since most states recognize the importance of a college education, they allow it to be included in settlement negotiations, provided the language is broad and the expectations are not excessive.
Not surprisingly, child support can be the most contentious point in a divorce or separation proceeding. Even in the most amicable of splits, it is important that you consult a family attorney to be sure that your rights and those of your child are protected.
* National Coalition for Child Support Options
In the United States, over 69 percent of child support is paid by withholding income from a parent.
Source:Office of Child Support Enforcement
According to the U.S. Census Bureau $38 billion in child support payments were due to custodial parents in 2005, but $13.2 billion went unpaid. Of this amount, custodial mothers received 65 percent of $34.7 billion due to them and custodial fathers received 72 percent of $3.3 billion due to them.