Understanding Child Support

Child support is a payment made by a non-custodial parent to assist with the costs of raising a child. A court normally determines the amount to be paid, usually after a divorce or if paternity has been established. Child support amounts, laws and guidelines vary from state to state.

What Can Child Support Be Used For?

Child support is used to cover the daily needs of a child. These include necessities like food, clothing and shelter. They also include education, health care, day care and other services or items that the children require. In some cases, the amount of support ordered might result in the improvement of the custodial parent’s household standard of living.

How Is Child Support Determined?

As is the case with other family law matters involving children, such as custody and visitation, courts focus their child support decisions on what is in the best interest of the child. Most states have established guidelines for determining the amount of support to be awarded. In many jurisdictions, the amount is determined by taking the incomes of both parents into account. Other states base it solely on the income of the non-custodial parent. However, this consideration is not limited to parents' wages.

To set the amount of child support, a family law court will also consider other financial assets, such as dividends and interest. Other items that can be taken into account include:

  • Social Security income,
  • workers’ compensation,
  • military veterans' benefits,
  • retirement plan income,
  • gifts and prizes,
  • lottery winnings, and
  • income from self-employment.

What Is the Duration of Child Support?

Child support generally lasts until the child reaches the age of majority. In many states, that is considered to be 18 years of age, but it may be extended until the child graduates from high school. A few states consider the age of majority to be 21. Many states have enacted legislation that would require support payments to be made past the age of majority if a child is mentally or physically disabled.

Modification of a Child Support Order

A child support order can be subject to modification at a later date. Both the custodial and the non-custodial parent can request a modification of a child support order. Modifications are often predicated upon an unexpected and adverse change in financial circumstances, such as a job loss or a medical emergency. In order to obtain a modification, a parent must request it from the same court that granted the order.

How Is Child Support Enforced?

Once a court issues an order for child support, it can be enforced in multiple ways. One way is to get assistance from the local child support enforcement agency. This agency can help to enforce the order through wage garnishment, which means the amount of support is taken directly from the non-custodial parent’s wages.

An order of income withholding can be issued by a court or, in some states, by the child support enforcement agency. An agency can use other collection methods as well, such as seizing federal or state income tax refunds, attaching bank accounts and suspending driver’s licenses.

In some cases, a custodial parent can ask the original court to issue a civil contempt citation against the non-custodial parent. This can lead to home detention, probation or even incarceration.

Child support enforcement can be accomplished even if the non-custodial parent has relocated to another state. Every state has adopted some version of the Uniform Interstate Support Enforcement Act, which makes cooperation among child support enforcement agencies possible.

The information on this page is meant to provide a general overview of the law. The laws in your state and/or city may deviate significantly from those described here. If you have specific questions related to your situation you should speak with a local attorney.

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