Governments in the United States expect both biological parents to support a child financially, medically, and emotionally, whether or not they live together or with the child.
When parents don’t live with their child, the court can order them to make periodic payments, called child support.
What Is Child Support?
Typically, a child support order requires the parent who doesn’t live with the child (the noncustodial or obligated parent) to make payments to the parent who has full or majority custody of the child (the custodial parent).
A child support order can also require noncustodial parents to make payments to guardians or foster parents when the child is placed outside of the home.
The order determines how long an obligated parent has to make payments, most commonly until the child turns 18 or graduates high school, joins the military, or is legally emancipated. Payments could last longer if the child has special needs or the parents agree to a longer term.
The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE), an office of the Administration of Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, oversees child support at a national level and supports local child support agencies, which provide direct services to families.
States or tribes administer child support, from setting orders to collecting and distributing payments, and the rules vary from state to state. Find your agency’s contact information through OCSE for details about your situation.
How to Get a Child Support Order
A custodial parent can request child support through their local agency. Steps include:
Open a Case. Fill out an application with your local agency. If you’re seeking child support in connection with a divorce, work with your lawyer to file the application as part of the proceedings.
Locate the Noncustodial Parent and Establish Parentage. Child support agencies and OCSE help locate the other parent when necessary. The court must confirm they are the child’s parent, either through voluntary acknowledgement or DNA testing. For married (or previously married) parents, most states assume a mother’s male spouse is the child’s parent. A child’s birth certificate is most likely to confirm parentage for a mother when necessary.
Establish the Order. A court determines how much the noncustodial parent will pay, the payment terms and structure, and how the parent will contribute to a child’s medical care. Each state sets guidelines for determining the amount of child support considering the child’s needs, other dependents, and the both parents’ ability to pay for the child’s needs.
Set Up Payment and Enforce the Order. The obligated parent sets up payment, either through automatic paycheck deductions or manual payments. If they miss payments, the child support agency collects payment through alternative means or encourages payment through punitive measures. Some states continue payments to the custodial parent even if the other parent isn’t paying.
Find your local agency through the OCSE list to learn how to apply for child support with your state or tribe.
Get a child support order even if you and the noncustodial parent amicably agree to support terms. The court order establishes methods to help you get paid if circumstances change in the future, and it gives the obligated parent documentation of payments. In most states, you can work out an agreement together and present it to the court for approval.
Some agencies charge a fee up to $35 to apply for child support. People receiving assistance under Medicaid, foster care, or cash assistance programs can have the fee waived.
How Responsibility for Child Support Is Determined
To establish a child support order, the court must first determine which of the parents — one or the other or both — is responsible for paying child support.
The discussion begins with custody and placement, which are related but not synonymous.
Placement: Where the child lives
Custody: Legal authority to make decisions about the child’s religion, education, and health care
Physical placement has more of an effect on child support than custody. Physical placement arrangements include:
Primary Placement. The main parent the child lives with. This parent may have sole, shared, or split placement.
Sole Placement. A child lives with one parent 100% of the time.
Shared Placement. A child lives with each parent at least 25% of the time.
Split Placement. In cases with more than one child, split placement means each parent gets primary placement for different children.
Child custody can be either:
Sole Custody. One parent has sole legal authority for the child.
Joint Custody. Both parents have equal legal authority for the child.
Even if one parent gets sole custody and placement, the other parent is still responsible for the child and can be ordered to pay child support.
A court can terminate parental rights (TPR) for one or both parents, which they can submit to voluntarily or involuntarily. A county or state might file a TPR in the case of neglect or absence, for example, and the parent faces a court case to maintain their rights. A parent who is not involved with raising a child could also file to terminate their own rights, but the court makes the final decision.
Termination of rights also eliminates a parent’s financial responsibilities for the child. Courts are most likely to grant a TPR in cases where adoption is an option, such as by a stepparent or foster parents.
Stepparents don’t have a legal responsibility for a child — unless they adopt the child, in which case they’re no longer “stepparents” — and therefore can’t be ordered to pay child support.
How Child Support Payment Amounts Are Determined
Each state sets guidelines for child support, and the court typically has final say in setting an amount based on the child’s needs and the parents’ ability to pay.
Find your state’s guidelines through OCSE’s Intergovernmental Reference Guide.
Generally, the more a parent earns, the more the court expects them to provide in child support. Most courts recognize financial hardship and take it into consideration when determining your ability to provide financial support for a child.
Courts look at finances of both parents to determine a child support payment for the noncustodial parent. If a custodial parent has a high income and personal net worth, the noncustodial parent may not have to pay as much in child support.
Models for determining the support amount include:
Income-Shares. Based on the total income of both parents, the noncustodial parent is responsible for a share of support.
Percentage Model. Assuming the custodial parent is contributing to the child’s needs, the court determines support as a percentage of only the noncustodial parent’s income.
Noncash Support. Tribal agencies can authorize in-kind, noncash child support in keeping with culture and tradition, including items such as firewood, fish, and meat; or services such as child care or home repair.
What courts consider income is similar to the income you have to report on a tax return. It may include:
Social Security benefits
Private or government retirement benefits
Courts don’t necessarily consider a stepparent’s income when determining parents’ responsibility for a child’s financial needs, but it could count as resources available to the custodial parent.
Placement & Custody
If parents have shared placement, the court may determine child support based on how much time the child spends living with each parent — but this isn’t necessarily the case. The court may determine the amount based on each parent’s contribution to the family’s joint income instead.
Child’s Previous Quality of Life
In the case of parents’ divorce or breakup, the court looks at the living conditions of the family prior to the split. It may set a child support amount necessary to help the child maintain that lifestyle.
Expenses Associated With Raising a Child
Along with a family’s living conditions, the court looks at reasonable expenses associated with raising a child where you live, including costs of food, housing, clothing, transportation, education, and entertainment.
A city with a high cost of living, for example, might make raising a child more costly and increase your child support responsibility, compared with a low-cost rural area.
Child’s Special Needs
The court takes into account the cost of providing for a child with special needs due to physical, mental, or learning disability.
Changing a Child Support Order
The state doesn’t automatically change child support orders when circumstances change, except in two cases:
Periodic cost-of-living changes
Recipients on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have their cases automatically reviewed every three years
Otherwise, any change requires a review, which you can request up to every three years.
If Your Income Changes
Child support payments don’t automatically change when the obligated parent makes more or less money. If your income changes, request a review through your local child support agency for a permanent or temporary change in the payment amount.
Each state sets guidelines and procedures for how to determine whether to change an order. You typically have to provide:
A financial statement or worksheet of your income and standard expenses
A paystub or other proof of income or economic status
Based on its guidelines and the information you provide, the child support agency calculates a new amount. In many cases, the new amount must vary by a set percentage, usually 10% to 20%, to warrant a change to your order.
The custodial parent can request a change to the order too if they’re struggling financially.
Even if you both amicably agree to extra payments — and even if they’re temporary — get the order legally changed to ensure the payer has an official record of the amount paid and the payee has protections in case of nonpayment.
Voluntarily leaving your job does not often constitute a financial hardship in the court’s eyes. It’s rare to have child support payments reduced if you quit your job to pursue a hobby or lower-paying career or go back to school.
If the Child’s Placement Changes
The state might decrease your child support responsibility if the child spends more time living with you. It won’t happen automatically; you have to request a review and provide proof of your changed circumstances.
Visitation & Custody Disputes
The courts separate physical placement and child support orders, so one doesn’t automatically affect the other.
If a custodial parent doesn’t comply with visitation or placement, for example, the noncustodial parent is still responsible for child support payments. Keep making payments as ordered, and take the visitation dispute to court separately.
What Happens If You Don’t Pay Child Support?
The court order sets the amount of child support owed and the payment schedule. Past-due payment amounts are called “arrearage” or back child support, and a parent who owes back child support is considered “in arrears.”
To collect or encourage payment, states have the authority to:
Require a parent to participate in job services
Report past-due payments to credit reporting agencies
Intercept state and federal income tax refunds and other federal payments
Suspend your driver’s license or professional, hunting, or fishing licenses
Deny a passport
Take money from the parent’s bank account
Put a lien on property, such as a vehicle or home
Put the parent in jail for civil contempt
Submit the parent to federal prosecution and imprisonment
States treat past-due child support as debt, and a parent is obligated to pay it off — in some cases, with interest — even after a child turns 18. Some states set a statute of limitations on collecting past-due child support.
You legally owe the amount stated in your current child support order, so contact the child support agency right away if your income or circumstances change to request a change to the order.
Child Support & Taxes
Child support has little effect on taxes for either parent.
Who Pays Taxes on Child Support?
The obligated parent pays tax on child support funds as part of their regular income tax/ They don’t deduct the payments from taxable income.
The parent receiving child support does not claim it as income and therefore doesn’t owe tax on it.
Who Gets to Claim the Child as a Dependent?
When parents don’t live together, only one parent can claim a child as a dependent for tax purposes. The parent who can claim the child as a dependent can receive a significant tax deduction.
To qualify as a dependent child, the child has to live with the parent for at least half the year. In most cases, the child qualifies as a dependent of the custodial parent.
The child could qualify as a dependent for the noncustodial parent if the custodial parent signs a written declaration not to claim the child or a divorce agreement includes a provision allowing the noncustodial parent to claim the child.
Multiple Dependent Children
If there are multiple children, parents can arrange to allocate the dependents between them.
Check with a tax attorney to work out a situation that offers the most benefit to everyone involved. Parents can often come to an equitable agreement in this situation, especially if the parents are in different income tax brackets.
The law expects all parents to provide financial support to their children. When parents don’t live together, a child support order can ensure a noncustodial parent provides support.
A custodial parent can request an order through a state or tribal child support agency, and the order sets the amount owed and payment terms. The state has the authority to enforce a child support order by meting out financial or legal penalties to an obligated parent with past-due child support debt.
Both parents should understand the child support laws and guidelines in their state to know what to expect when requesting a child support order. Each should keep a record of the order and payments to ensure compliance and avoid a miscalculation of support owed.
Have you paid or received child support? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced?