What You Should Know About Child Support

Child support is ordered by a court, the Child Support Enforcement Agency or established by agreement of the parties.

Who pays child support?

In general, the “non-residential” parent pays child support to the “residential” parent. In shared parenting plans, the amount of support may be directly related to the amount of time the child spends in each parent’s home.

How is child support calculated?

Child support is calculated according to a written formula in state law. That formula combines the father’s and mother’s gross income. Certain deductions can be taken for local income tax and child or spousal support for other children or former spouses. In addition the value of a federal dependency exemption for each dependent in your household can be deducted from your gross income. For example, assume you have a child by a new marriage and a non-residential child from a previous marriage. You would reduce your gross income by the amount of the child dependency deduction before calculating support for the child of your earlier marriage. If you were ordered to pay spousal support to a former spouse, the amount of the spousal support is deducted from your gross income and added to your former spouse’s income.

The total of both parents’ adjusted gross income is added together. The child support guideline chart shows the amount of support based on the parents’ income category. The paying parent will pay a pro-rated share of that amount. For example, if Mom earns $10,000 per year, and Dad earns $30,000, the combined gross income is $40,000. If Dad is the parent paying support, he must pay 75% of the guideline amount, because he earns 75% of the total combined parental income.

What about day care expenses or health insurance costs?

Work-related day care expenses and health insurance coverage for the child are added to the amount of child support. For example, assume the guideline amount is $4,000 per year. Mom also pays $1500 per year for day care while at work. Dad pays $500 per year for the child’s medical insurance coverage. The total child support cost is $6,000 per year. This total cost is divided between the parents based on each parent’s percentage of their total earnings.

The court usually orders health insurance coverage, if available at reasonable cost. If no affordable coverage is available, the parents must share the health care costs. Each parent is usually order to pay uncovered medical costs based on their percentage of the parent’s total earnings; the residential parent pays the first $100 per year.

If I pay child support, do I automatically get to claim the child on my tax return?

Federal tax law gives the dependency exemption to the custodial parent. However, state courts have the power to award the exemption to the non-custodial parent if it will result in a net tax saving that benefit the child.

How long does child support last?

 Child support must be paid until the child reaches the age of 18 or graduates high school, whichever is later. If a child is no longer attending high school and is not living with or dependent upon a parent, then child support may end before age 18. If a child is more than 18 years of age and still attends high school, support will continue until the child has completed high school, up to age 19, unless otherwise ordered or agreed.

Special rules may apply to disabled children. A child support order may last well beyond a disabled child’s 18th birthday. How long depends on the child’s ability to be independent.

A court can order or change child support only until a child turns age 18, with the exception of handicapped children and those still in high school after age 18. This is true even when a child over 18 is entirely dependent upon his parents. If parents agree in a court order to support a child beyond the age of 18 (to pay for college, for example), then the court can enforce that agreement.

Courts cannot order support for a child born out of wedlock until paternity is determined. Support must then be paid from the child’s birth until “emancipation” (age 18 or independence).

What if court-ordered support isn't paid?

All support orders must be paid. Payment can be made in one of three ways.

  1. Most common is the “wage order” in which the amount of child support is taken directly from the wages of the person owing support. Or child support may be taken from a bank account.
  2. Self-employed persons are required to post cash bonds that may be used if the payor misses a payment. The payee is paid from the bond. The payor must reimburse the bond fund.
  3. A “reporting” order is issued by the court when a parent is unemployed. The parent must report to the Child Support Enforcement Agency (CSEA) regularly about their job search and income.

A CSEA support officer can seek to enforce an order by filing contempt motions and by garnishing wages or bank accounts. The CSEA can take certain income to meet past due support. For example, a tax refund, company bonus or similar lump sum can be taken to pay long overdue child support.

Certain licenses cannot be renewed for those who fail to pay child support. For instance, recreational, professional and drivers’ licenses cannot be renewed if a license-holder owes past due child support.

Can I deny companionship/visitation if my ex doesn't pay support? Can I stop paying support if my ex denies visitation/companionship?

No! If you deliberately fail to obey these court orders, you could be found in contempt of court. Contempt is punishable by a jail sentence, a fine, attorney fees, and court costs. Also, if your ex seeks a change of custody, your deliberate withholding of visitation or child support will be an important factor in deciding who should be the residential parent. Use the law to enforce court orders.

This article is meant to give you general information and not to give you specific legal advice.Prepared by Community Legal Aid Services, Inc. Updated May 2012. CE-38-F165-CLAS