The Ultimate Guide to Child Support

Child Support

If you have minor children, then child support will surely be an issue that needs to be addressed in your divorce.

This guide covers the most important child support issues you need to know.

What is Child Support?

Child Support

Child support occurs when payments are made by a parent to support a child or children in a separation or a divorce.

There are many factors that determine the amount of child support that must be paid, but the amount primarily depends on the income of both parents and how much time a child spends with each parent.

Child support can be amicably worked out by both parents, but when this is not possible, the courts will intervene and make a determination on the amount.

These payments become a legal and binding agreement that can either be paid directly from one parent to another, as part of a wage garnishment or through arrangements made with a state child support agency.

Each state has its own set of guidelines, but all use a pre-determined formula of some sort to help define the amount to be paid.

Child support can cover many expenses related to shelter, food, clothing, education, transportation, medical bills and other costs.

The overall goal of child support is to provide much needed financial security that is in the best interests of a child involved in a divorce.

Payments are usually made until a child reaches the age of maturity.

In many cases, this is until age 18, but can be as old as 21 or even older if the child has special needs.

Nonpayment of child support can create a big legal problem for parents who don’t comply with a child support order.

Courts can enforce the order in many ways and in some extreme cases, failing to provide child support could result in going to jail, intercepting a tax refund, seizing property or other similar actions.

If there are major changes in a parent’s life, such as a job loss or serious illness, it is possible to petition the court for a modification of a child support payment.

Who Gets Child Support Payments in a Divorce?

A formal child support order is usually put in place as part of a divorce process. It is generally decided in concert with custody decisions.

The parent who cares for children on a daily basis is said to be a custodial parent. The parent who does not have this responsibility is said to be the non-custodial parent.

Non-custodial parents are ordered the make child support payments based on a number of factors including the income of each parent, expenses, and the amount of time they are expected to spend with their children, among others.

Each state uses a predefined formula to help calculate exact child support amounts, although courts are granted a fair amount of leeway in making a final determination on an amount.

How is the Amount of Child Support Calculated in a Divorce?

Amount of Child Support Calculated in a Divorce

Federal law requires each state to establish guidelines for calculating child support.

The amount is based for the most part on each parent’s income and expenses, as well as how much time a child spends with each parent as part of a custody arrangement.

Courts will also consider the best interests of a child, what the specific needs of a child might be, the resources of each parent and the overall ability of the non-custodial parent to make child support payments.

States have a fair amount of leeway in determining how these guidelines are determined, so child support payments can vary widely from state to state.

Also, within each state, judges have some degree of discretion in setting the amount of child support.

What are the Child Support Laws in My State?

The guideline formula used to calculate the amount of child support varies for each state.

That’s why you really need to understand the child support laws in your state.

For an overview of how child support works in your state, click on your state’s link below.

Is Child Support Modifiable?

If there are major life changes for either parent, child support payments can be requested to be modified.

This might happen if one parent loses their job or suffers from an extended illness.

Modifications can be fairly simple when both spouses agree but can become heated legal battles if there are objections.

What Percentage of Your Income do You Have to Pay in Child Support?

Percentage of Your Income do You Have to Pay in Child Support

Each state decides what level of child support must be paid and this is regulated by statutes that govern the amounts.

To establish the amount that must be paid, states use a variety of formulas to reach specific dollar amounts.

Courts also have the discretion to deviate from the formulas that are used and can base actual amounts on other factors such as a parent’s actual ability to pay, the needs and the income of the custodial parent, the standard of living before the parent’s divorced, and the amount of time that a child spends with each parent, among others.

The formulas that are used to calculate child support include:

The Income Shares Model.

Forty states use this model which bases the amount of child support on the income of both parents and the number of children who are in the family.

It is based on the concept that a child should receive the same proportion of parental income that he or she would have received if the parents were still living together.

This principle is consistent with the Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act which has been enacted in most states. It is a four-step process:

  1. The income of the parents (gross or net) is determined and added together.
  2. A “basic child support obligation” is computed based on the combined income of the parents, using a table or grid in the guidelines. The amounts in the table are derived from economic data on household expenditures on children.
  3. A “presumptive child support obligation” is then computed by adding expenditures for work-related child care expenses and extraordinary medical expenses to the basic child support obligation. Other add-ons and deductions may also be calculated.
  4. The presumptive child support obligation is prorated between each parent based on his or her proportionate share of total income. The noncustodial parent’s share is payable as child support, while the custodial parent’s obligation is retained and presumed to be spent directly on the child.

Several states, including California, New York, Virginia, Michigan, Colorado and others use the Income Shares Model to determine child support payments.

Percentage of Income Model.

Seven states use this model which base the child support payment on a specific percentage of the non-custodial parent’s gross income or net income, as well as the number of children the parent supports.

The percentage can either be flat or vary depending on the state. In flat states, the percentage of income does not change even if the non-custodial parent’s income fluctuates.

In states that employ the varying model, the percentage of income changes when the parent’s income fluctuates.

For example, if a non-custodial parent has an income of $3,000 and one child to support, then a flat percentage of that parent’s income must be dedicated to child support.

In this case, if it was 25%, then the non-custodial parent would pay $750 per month.

Melson Formula


This is a variation on the income shares model and allows for more money for child support to be paid as one or both parents increase their income.

The court bases payments on a defined set of factors that include the needs of the child and a Standard of Living Adjustment for the child as well.

Only Hawaii, Delaware and Montana use this model.

You can see what child support guideline formula is used in your state below.

child support guideline by state

How Long do Child Support Payments Last After a Divorce?

There are always exceptions, but generally child support payments come to an end when any of the following situations apply:

  • The child is no longer a minor. In this case, 18 is the accepted age most of the time, although there are a few states that enforce child support until age 21. Child support may continue past 18 if the child has special needs such as a disability or if the child is still in high school past age 18. In this case, support would end upon graduation or when the child turns 19 or 20, depending on the state where you live.
  • The child becomes active duty in the military.
  • Parental rights end through adoption or any other similar legal process.
  • The child is declared emancipated. This means that a child is declared an adult at an earlier age because they are already able to support themselves or if they enter a valid marriage.

Is Child Support for the Child or Parent?

As the name implies, child support is to provide for the well-being of a child in a separation or a divorce.

The custodial parent is primarily responsible for the day-to-day needs of the child and as such, acts as an administrator of the child support payments that are made.

Payments are made by a non-custodial parent strictly for the financial benefit of the child.

In some cases, it may be possible for one spouse to also collect alimony from the other which is then used to provide financial security for the ex-spouse.

What is Child Support Supposed to Cover?

There is a bit of a misconception that child support is only meant to cover the essential expenses in a child’s life such as food and clothing.

The reality is that child support covers a much broader range of expenses that can encompass all parts of a child’s life.

Laws will vary from state to state, so it’s important to see what the guidelines are for your particular jurisdiction and how those guidelines will influence the actual amount of child support that can be paid.

At a minimum, support will cover food, clothing and shelter expenses.

Most states require separated or divorced parents to also provide some form of health insurance as well.

In most cases, the parent with the better employee health benefits will be required to carry health, dental and/or vision insurance.

Support may also be used to pay for uninsured medical expenses as well.

This can include payments to meet deductibles, co-pays, surgery, or any out-of-pocket expenses that may not be covered by insurance.

Depending on the state, parents may be required to split the costs of additional medical care.

Even if a child attends public schools, there are going to be associated expenses for supplies, uniforms, textbooks, lunches, tutors, extracurricular activities, and field trips, among others. Support can also be used for this purpose as well.

In addition, after school care may also be required if a custodial parent works, or if a child is not yet of school age, there may be daycare costs, babysitters, nannies or other childcare costs too. Costs for care during spring break and summer vacation should also be factored in as well.

Because a parent must often transport a child to and from various activities, transportation is also factored into child support. Costs to maintain a car, gas, car payments, insurance and other related costs may be included.

Courts also maintain that a child is entitled to entertainment expenses, including those related to access to computers, televisions, games and the internet. Costs can also be included for trips to the movie theatre, amusement parks, camping trips and vacations, and other types of outings.

College expenses may be factored in as well. Many states reason that a child’s education shouldn’t suffer because of their parents’ 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.

Can I Get Child Support During Separation?

Can I Get Child Support

Yes. Legally a parent is not required to pay any child support unless there is a court order in place.

Until a legal agreement is in place, parents can make arrangements to provide for their children and hopefully come to some understanding that is in their best interests.

However, if parents can’t reach an agreement during a separation after divorce paperwork has been filed, then it is possible that the court may order a parent to pay temporary support until a divorce is finalized.

As part of the final divorce decree, a formal and permanent legal agreement regarding child support will be put into place.

The temporary order is mostly based on a child custody schedule, how many children are involved and the income of each spouse.

While you and your spouse may have a verbal agreement about temporary support, it is easy to back out of this agreement.

The only way to ensure that the needs of your children are met is by obtaining a temporary child support order.

It is also possible to seek temporary alimony to help you meet expenses. Courts will consider this request when granting temporary child support as well.

How Long Does It Take for Child Support Payments to Start?

The length of time it takes before child support payments start can depend on the circumstances of your case and the state where you live.

If a non-custodial parent agrees to make child support payments on their own, then payments can start almost immediately on an agreed-upon schedule.

If child support payments are rendered by a judge as part of a court order, then the order must go to an employer if wages are to be garnished and it will take a pay cycle or two to set up the funding mechanism.

This could result in payments taking place in about 4-6 weeks after the court order has been issued.

If payments are to be made through a state collection agency, then it will take a couple of weeks for the court order to be processed and payment mechanisms put in place.

Depending on the speed at which the agency works, it could be 2-3 weeks before the order is in place. Payments are then made within 1-2 days after payments are received from the spouse who is required to make payments.

It’s important to note that you will not receive a payment if the parent obligated to pay does not make a payment.

This is why many people prefer the protection of a wage garnishment in place so that there are no delays.

The legal obligation to pay a specific amount of child support to the other parent requires a court or state agency administrative order that will specify a start date.

It may also apply a retroactive start date as well in some cases. Possible effective dates may be the date of filing, the date of service, the date of separation, or the date of birth of the child, depending upon the type of case and laws of your state.

In all cases, it is important to keep good records of payments in case there are any disputes or misunderstandings at any point.

Is Child Support Paid Weekly or Monthly?

It depends.

Pay schedules can vary from state to state.

Generally, it is common for support payments to follow the payor’s wage cycle.

If a person is paid on the 1st and 15th of the month, then child support payments may be ordered twice a month as well.

If the payor receives wages every other Friday, then a child support payment schedule will be set up to follow this pay schedule as well.

The more important factor is not when you are paid, but how much you are paid.

The pay cycle does not matter as much as what the total amount due is going to be.

For example, if a person is paid twice a month, then that equates to 24 payments per year.

If a person is paid every other Friday, then that equates to 26 payments a year.

The annual amount would not change, but because payments are made more frequently in a bi-weekly situation, the amount would be less than in a twice a month scenario.

How Do I Receive my Child Support Payments?

Receive my Child Support Payments

There are several ways you can receive child support payments.

Direct payment from one spouse to another.

Payments can be made by cash, check or money order and is the most simple and direct method for getting child support because there is no processing time built in. The downside is that if a parent misses or is late on payments, enforcement can be more difficult than with other methods.

Wage Garnishment.

Under this format, child support is deducted directly from a paying spouse’s paycheck and sent to the other spouse or to your state’s child support enforcement agency. The agency then makes payments to you.

Wage garnishment requires the receiving parent to formally make a request to the courts for the execution of a garnishment order.

Once executed, the parent must then contact the payor’s employer who is legally obligated to withhold child support from paychecks.

While payments are made automatically, the downside is that the paying parent may be embarrassed by this action, which could escalate hostilities between two parents.

The other drawback is that there are limits on how much can be garnished from wages and you may not be able to get the entire amount due to you if you pursue this option.

Also, if a spouse is self-employed, you cannot garnish their wages this way.

Wage garnishment is governed by the Consumer Credit Protection Act which sets limits on what percentage of wages can be garnished.

This law allows for up to 50% of a worker’s disposable earnings to be garnished if the worker is supporting another spouse and child.

If the worker is not supporting another family, then the amount can be as much as 60% of a worker’s disposable income.

Keep in mind, this does not entitle a spouse to 50% or 60% of an entire paycheck.

It only allows that amount after the payor’s living expenses are figured in.

For example, if a worker makes $4,000 but has $3,000 in expenses, then a spouse would be entitled to 50% or 60% of the remaining $1,000, or $500 to $600 per month.

Collection by your state child support enforcement agency.

This agency will assist you in collecting child support.

They will take in funds and disburse them to you and you will not need to do any type of paperwork or keep records.

The other advantage of this is that parents will have no direct contact with each other regarding child support, which can be a big advantage if you have experienced disagreements or conflicts in the past.

The good news is you are the receiving spouse is that there is no leeway when it comes to late or missed payments.

The agency will be extremely aggressive on your behalf. In return, some agencies may take a small administrative fee for processing and monitoring payments.

Do I Still Receive Child Support Payments If I Remarry?

If you are the custodial parent and get married again, this should have no impact on whether you receive child support or not.

This is because laws direct that the child’s birth parents are the ones who are responsible for the child’s support.

However, if a custodial parent does get remarried, the non-custodial parent can contest the original agreement if they think support is not unfair, especially if the new spouse has the financial resources to provide extra assistance for the child.

It is possible in some cases for the non-custodial parent’s obligation to be reduced.

In cases where a new spouse wants to adopt children from a previous marriage, the non-custodial parent must relinquish his or her rights.

When this happens, he or she is no longer obligated to pay child support. By agreeing to adoption, the new spouse has also accepted the financial responsibility that comes with being their new legal parent.

If a non-custodial parent decides to remarry, it does not relieve them of any financial responsibility they have regarding child support from a previous marriage.

It’s also important to note that if a non-custodial parent gets remarried and that causes a spike in combined income with their new spouse, this will not impact how much child support they must pay.

Paying child support from a previous marriage is not considered the legal responsibility of your new spouse.

How Do I File for Child Support?

File for Child Support

To seek child support, you must ask for a court order directly through the courts or from your local child support agency.

You can either represent yourself, hire an attorney, or have a representative from the local agency represent you.

Of these, many experts advise hiring an experienced family law attorney who will not be impacted by any excuses offered by the other parent.

Family law attorneys also have the most specialized knowledge of the law and the most relevant experience to best represent your interests.

If you use an attorney or go through the local child support agency, they will be able to help you collect payments if the other parent falls behind on their obligation.

Child support usually starts on the date the order is filed and is generally not retroactive, so it is important to begin the process as soon as possible.

Without a court order, the other parent has no legal obligation to pay for child support, even if there is a verbal agreement between you.

You will also have little recourse if the other parent decides to stop making payments for any reason.

In some states, parents still receive child support checks in the mail. But more states are starting to handle payments through specialized debit cards.

When a child support payment is made, funds are loaded onto the debit card and the parent is notifying of the deposit.

This streamlines the process and speeds the delivery of payments.

What Do I Need to Know About Child Support Hearings?

A judge will interpret the financial information that is given to them by parents and lawyers in a child support hearing.

Based on this information, and using existing state guidelines, the judge will render a decision about how much child support should be awarded to one parent or the other.

As part of your preparations for the hearing, you need to be completely truthful about your financial information on every form you fill out.

Don’t forget to report under-the-table income or overstate your financial needs as a way to control how much child support you will receive.

Judges have seen it all and any attempt to game the system may end up poorly for you.

On the day of the hearing arrive early and don’t let unexpected delays such as a traffic jam derail your opportunity to make a good impression on a judge.

Your hearing may actually start later than the appointed time if other hearings before yours run long.

During the hearing, make sure you stick to the subject at hand. A judge will only decide how much you should receive and will not have any authority to change your custody order or visitation arrangements. Those are separate matters that can be revisited at another time.

The court will base their decision based on the information that has been supplied by both sides as well as following your state’s child support guidelines.

If you don’t think the other side has presented accurate information, you have every right to speak up. Courts have discretion to impute a parent’s income if they believe they aren’t being truthful.

They will establish child support based on what they believe a parent should earn based on past employment, education and other factors.

On the flip side, you must be realistic in your expectations, especially if your spouse has verifiable limited income.

Keep in mind that you will both testify under oath, and not telling the truth could cause serious legal repercussions.

If you are uneasy about a hearing, your best bet is to consult with an experienced family law attorney who will be able to advise you on the best way to move forward through a hearing.

Related: How to Prepare for a Divorce Hearing

If I Have Joint Custody, Do I Still Need to Pay Child Support?

In a joint custody arrangement, you may still need to pay child support. Joint custody does not relieve you of this obligation.

Child support payments are meant to bridge the income inequality gap between two spouses.

So even if custody is shared equally, child support formulas and guidelines are designed so that the parent with the higher income will still owe support.

In some states, if parents have a child equal amounts of time, the courts may take the obligation and divide it in half.

In other states, child support may be calculated in part based on how many days a child spends with a parent in a specified time frame.

Is it Possible to Collect Back Child Support?

It is possible to collect back child support from who have fallen behind in the timely payment of their obligation.

The Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984 grants district attorneys and state attorney generals the authority to collect back child support on behalf of custodial parents.

While a deadbeat parent could ultimately wind up in jail, this is not often the case since the goal is to encourage them to make payment of court-ordered child support.

Instead, other actions may be used to motivate a parent to pay.

Under the Act, authorities can enforce a child support judgment by:

  • Garnishing wages
  • Placing liens against property or real estate
  • Freezing bank accounts
  • Reporting the debtor to credit bureaus
  • Suspending professional or driver’s licenses
  • Issuing a contempt order that could result in a fine

If a parent cannot pay, they will not be jailed for lack of means to be able to pay.

A non-custodial parent may file a formal modification of child support to reflect his or her current financial situation. This may allow some kind of settlement to be worked out either on a temporary or permanent basis.

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