Child Support 101:

Meaning, Models, Modifications & More

State law dictates rules and regulations regarding child support. Below, learn about how child support is ordered and calculated.

What Is Child Support?

Child support is financial support paid by one parent to the other parent in order to help provide for the needs of the child. It is a periodic payment that is made at regular intervals. Child support can be entered into voluntarily, by court order or by an administrative agency. Child support may be ordered as part of a stand-alone claim, or in cases involving divorce, separation, annulment or an order of protection case.

While the noncustodial parent is often required to provide child support to the custodial parent, child support may be ordered even when the parents have joint custody. The parent with the higher income may be ordered to pay child support to the parent with a lower income so that the child will have the same standard of living regardless of which parent’s home he or she is currently in.

Although child support is meant to provide financial support to the child, it is usually paid to the other parent. If neither parent has custody of the child, the parents may be required to pay child support to the person who does have custody of the child, such as a foster parent or grandparent.

Purpose of Child Support

Child support is based on the idea that both parents are legally and financially responsible for the child.

Child support helps provide financial support to children whose parents are no longer together because they are divorced or the children were born out of wedlock. Receiving child support reduces poverty of the affected children and custodial parents. When child support is paid consistently, children and custodial parents are less likely to need welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and other public benefits. This reduces public spending on these programs. This helps increase the family’s self-sufficiency.

Studies show that fathers who pay child support are more likely to be more involved in the lives of their children, to see their children more frequently and to influence how their child is raised.

Child Support Guidelines

Child support guidelines were established to streamline the award and collection of child support. Before child support guidelines were established, family court judges had great discretion over how much child support to order in a given case. The amount of child support was based on the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay and the child’s needs. However, this process often resulted in inconsistent outcomes.

The federal government enacted the Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984. This law required states to enact rules about child support and strengthen their enforcement powers.

Additionally, the federal law provided for the following:

  • Employers must withhold child support from individuals ordered to pay child support who were at least one month behind on their child support obligation
  • Property liens can be implemented against parents delinquent on their child support obligation
  • State and federal income tax refunds can be intercepted

States that receive federal funds were also required to offer parent-locator and child support services to all custodial parents in the state. States were also required to provide presumptive guidelines that calculated the amount of child support that should be ordered under most situations. Federal law also required states to determine situations in which the presumptive amount of child support would not be appropriate and required judges to provide written findings for when they deviate from the presumptive amount of child support.

State child support guidelines are required to consider all earnings and income of the paying parent. These guidelines must be based on specific criteria that can be used to calculate an appropriate amount of child support.

Models of Child Support

Different states use different models to calculate child support awards, including the following:

Income Shares Model

The income shares model is based on the concept that a child should receive the same proportion of parental income that he or she would receive if the parents were still together. When the parents live together in the same household, their income is usually pooled and used for the benefit of the family.

This model computes the child support obligation in the following way:

  • Determine the income of each parent and add them together
  • Compare this income to a statutory child support table or schedule to get the basic child support obligation
  • Add other expenses such as childcare and extraordinary medical expenses to the basic child support obligation to render a presumptive child support obligation
  • Prorate the child support obligation between the parents based on their percentage of the total income

Example:

Parent A is the custodial parent and has a monthly income of $1,000. Parent B is the noncustodial parent with $2,000 of monthly income. The total combined income of the parents is $3,000. Parent A contributes 1/3 of the income while Parent B contributes 2/3. If the basic child support obligation is $500 and the family has $50 of child care expenses, the presumptive obligation amount of support would be $550. Parent A is responsible for 1/3 of this amount while Parent B is responsible for 2/3 of this amount, or $366.30.

The income shares model is the most popular model, followed by these states:

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Iowa
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nebraska
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • New York
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Carolina
  • South Dakota
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Virginia
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

Percentage of Income Model

The percentage of income model bases the child support amount on a percentage of only the noncustodial parent’s income. The custodial parent’s income is not considered.

Child support using this method is calculated as follows:

  • Determine the non-custodial parent’s income
  • Use a statutory table to determine the percentage of the non-custodial parent’s income that should be applied, based on the number of children
  • Apply the percentage to the non-custodial parent’s income
  • Make adjustments for add-ons or reductions

Example:

Using the same example from above, Parent B has $2,000 in monthly income and is obligated to pay child support. Based on the state statutory table, Parent B has one child and should pay 17%. This gets a basic child support obligation of $340. There may be additional adjustments for child care, extraordinary medical expenses or other expenses.

The following states use this model:

  • Alaska
  • Arkansas
  • Mississippi
  • Nevada
  • North Dakota
  • Texas
  • Wisconsin

Melson Formula Model

The Melson Formula Model is a more complicated version of the Income Shares Model. It incorporates a number of public policy considerations into it and considers the parents’ ability to take care of their own financial needs. A Delaware family court judge invented this formula. Delaware, Hawaii, and Montana use this model. A complicated formula determines the child support obligation, which uses a number of factors, such as each parent’s self-support needs and the standard of living allowance.

While these models may seem very different from each other, they have certain similarities. For example, they all consider that the parent will need to have some self-support. Additionally, they all have rules to impute income for a parent who is not working or underworking. All of the guidelines consider health care expenses for the child. Additionally, most state guidelines provide special formulas for shared custody, extraordinary visitation, support for other children and child care expenses.

For information on the model that your state uses and statutory references, click here.

What Child Support Pays For

Child support helps pay for the reasonable costs of raising a child. As well as those expenses that are directly connected to the child, such as clothing, food and toys, child support also helps pay for a child’s cost of living, such as a portion of rent or mortgage and utilities.

Different states have different rules regarding what child support pays for. For example, California law states that child support can be used to improve the standard of living of the custodial household. However, child support orders may sometimes earmark funds for particular needs of the child, such as school fees, child care expenses or medical expenses. In some instances, these payments are made directly to the provider rather than paid to the custodial parent.

Most states do not require the custodial parent to provide an accounting of what the child support funds were used for as they believe this would create an administrative burden and they assume that the custodial parent will act in the best interests of the child. However, ten states allow courts to order an accounting on expenses that were paid by child support funds.

Even if a non-custodial parent pays child support, he or she is still responsible for expenses incurred when the child is with him or her. For example, he or she must still pay for the food, toiletries, clothing, toys or other items that the child uses while in his or her care.

Child Support Orders and Medical Expenses

Most child support orders will include a directive for the obliged parent to add his or her children to their health insurance plans. Some states require both parents to add the children to their health insurance plans. The parents are usually expected to split the cost of medical expenses. This amount is usually in addition to the basic child support obligation.

Child Support and Visitation

For he most part, child support and visitation are treated as two different legal matters. If a parent does not pay child support, this does not generally provide grounds for the custodial parent to refuse visitation. Likewise, just because a parent does pay child support, he or she may not have a right to visitation.

Visitation may affect child support in some instances, though. For example, some states consider the number of overnight visits as one of the factors that affects the amount of child support to be awarded. Under these systems, the more the noncustodial parent visits with the child, the less child support is ordered.

Seeking Child Support

If the parents agree to child support voluntarily, they will still want to turn to the state child support guidelines and seek legal assistance to ensure that they comply with all relevant rules. The paying parent should also keep impeccable records of all payments. Some states allow courts to enter a voluntary agreement of child support as an official order.

However, for most situations, the parent wishing to receive child support must petition the local court for child support. If the parents are unwed, paternity must first usually be established. Proving paternity varies in each jurisdiction, but common ways of doing so include:

  • Signing the birth certificate
  • Signing an acknowledgment of paternity
  • Proving paternity through genetic testing

If the parties were married and are getting a divorce, child support will usually be determined as part of the divorce process.

Seeking child support often involves the following steps:

  • The parent wanting child support files a complaint or petition that establishes the legal eligibility for child support
  • The other parent is located and served with the complaint or petition
  • A court hearing is scheduled where both parents attend
  • Paternity is established, if necessary
  • The parents provide additional information to determine the appropriate amount of child support, such as the number of children being supported and their individual income
  • The court enters an order for child support

How Long Child Support Orders Last

The duration of child support orders varies by the state where it is entered into and the specific circumstances of the case. A general rule is that child support ends when the child turns 18 or graduates high school, whichever occurs last. However, some states allow child support orders to remain in place as long as the child is enrolled in a full-time post-secondary education program.  If a parent gets behind on child support, he or she will be required to pay child support until the debt is completely paid off. This debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.

There are some situations in which the child support order may terminate prematurely, such as if the child who is being supported:

  • Gets married
  • Becomes legally emancipated, or
  • Dies

Modification of Child Support Orders

Even if the paying parent loses his or her job or becomes financially unable to pay the child support due, the obligation to pay the ordered amount of child support. For the person to try to reduce the amount of child support to pay or if the recipient parent believes that more child support should be ordered, the parent wanting the change will need to request a modification of the child support order.

Some states specify an amount of time that must elapse before a parent can request a change or that the amount of income or amount ordered must pass a certain threshold before allowing for a modification.

Some justifications for a modification of child support may include the following:

  • Supporting other children
  • Unemployment
  • Extraordinary health care expenses
  • Disability
  • Retirement
  • More visitation with the child
  • Increased expenses of the child

Child Support Enforcement Action

It is not uncommon for parents who are ordered to pay child support to get behind on this obligation. Federal and state laws allow for a number of child support enforcement actions to be taken against the parent who has been ordered to pay child support, including the following:

  • Wage garnishment – The child support agency can send a request to the parent’s employer to garnish the parent’s wages. Federal law allows up to 50 percent of the obligor’s wages to be garnished if he or she is supporting any other children or 60 percent if he or she is not.
  • Tax refund intercept – The parent’s tax refund can be intercepted and given to the custodial parent.
  • Interception of other benefits – The parent can have other benefits intercepted and rerouted to the custodial parent, such as winnings from prizes or the lottery.
  • Seize property – The child support agency can seize certain property
  • Liens – The paying parent may have liens attached to their real property or personal property that prevents him or her from selling the property.
  • Bank account seizures – In some cases, the paying parent’s financial account may be frozen or seized to pay off the accrued debt.
  • License suspension – The paying parent’s driver’s license may be suspended. Occupational licenses or business licenses can also be suspended or revoked
  • Jail time – The child support enforcement agency may be able to send the paying parent to jail for failing to pay child support, but this is usually used as a last resort.
  • Passport denial – The government can deny issuance of a passport or the renewal of a passport if the paying parent is more than $2,500 behind in child support payments.

Legal Assistance for Child Support

Because the child support guidelines can be complex to understand and are different in various jurisdictions, it is important that parents seek legal assistance for any child support matter they are confronting.

Author Details
Valerie Keene is an experienced lawyer and legal writer, editor and content manager. She has provided educational legal content for over a decade, focusing on various practice areas, including family law and estate planning. Her litigation successes have included wins for cases involving contract disputes, real property disputes, divorce, guardianship and consumer issues. She has worked on cases involving child custody disputes, divorce, domestic violence and incapacitated adults, providing clients with solid legal advice and representation.
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Valerie Keene is an experienced lawyer and legal writer, editor and content manager. She has provided educational legal content for over a decade, focusing on various practice areas, including family law and estate planning. Her litigation successes have included wins for cases involving contract disputes, real property disputes, divorce, guardianship and consumer issues. She has worked on cases involving child custody disputes, divorce, domestic violence and incapacitated adults, providing clients with solid legal advice and representation.
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