What is Child Support?
Child support is financial support a parent provides to one or more of their children for whom they do not have full custody. With amicable divorces or splits in relationships, child support may be voluntary and easily agreed to by both parents.
When parents cannot agree on child support, a non-custodial parent—the parent without primary custody, also known as the obligor—may be forced to pay support through a court order or government agency.
Parents and guardians have a legal and financial responsibility for their biological children, and in some cases non-biological children. This includes financial support for basic living expenses, like food, clothing, shelter, and healthcare, until the age of 18. State laws differ, but custodial parents generally do not owe support to stepchildren unless they adopted them.
Child Support Statistics
The U.S. Census reports on statistics and facts about child support, who receives it, who pays, and how much they pay. The most recent statistics are from 2015:
- Approximately half of the 13.6 million custodial parents have agreements for child support. Some are informal, and some are legally binding.
- Just over two-thirds of custodial parents received some of the child support owed from non-custodial parents.
- Only 43.5% of the custodial parents received the full amount owed.
- Sixty percent of child support due to custodial parents in 2015 was received.
- The average child support payment in 2015 was $3,447 per year.
- Nearly 30% of families with custodial mothers live at or below the poverty level compared to 17% of custodial fathers.
Why is Child Support Important?
When relationships fail, households split, leading to separate and increased expenses. Despite the split, parents owe their children financial support. By legally enforcing child support, the government has several goals:
- Reduce poverty and insecurity for children and their custodial parents
- Reduce the number of families on welfare and reduce public spending on welfare, food stamps, and other social safety net programs
- Improve family relationships and increase the involvement of the non-custodial parent with the children.
There is evidence that child support does reduce poverty. It improves health and overall well-being for children by keeping them out of poverty and providing for their basic needs.
What Role Does the Government Play in Child Support?
Child support is a social issue. Nearly half of couples end up divorcing, and not all can be settled amicably or without intervention. State child support enforcement agencies regulate child support and take steps to force the unwilling, non-custodial parent to pay. The agency works with the court system to settle disputes and to collect a payment, even garnishing wages or seizing personal property if necessary.
What is a Child Support Order?
Family courts issue child support orders, which outline the terms for support to a custodial parent. Enforcement of child support is based on the guidelines in the order. A court order outlines the amount owed by the non-custodial parent, how the payments are to be made, and penalties if they do not comply.
In many states, family courts issue child support orders even when divorcing parents reach an agreement out of court. The parents agree on a legal settlement for the division of assets and properties and child support. The family court approves the agreement for child support and issues an order.
Who is Eligible for Child Support?
State laws govern child support and vary, but in general, the custodial parent is entitled to receive child support from the non-custodial parent on behalf of their children. The money goes to the parent but is intended to be used for the child’s needs. A custodial parent is the person tasked with the primary care of the child. The child lives with this parent most of the time.
When parents have joint and equal custody, both are custodial. One parent may still be eligible for child support. Usually, a parent who stays home to care for the children receives support. If one parent earns significantly more than the other, they may be obligated to pay support.
If a child was born out of wedlock (nonmarital child), the parent raising the child is eligible for child support. They must be able to locate the other parent and prove paternity in the case of a father. Many states offer free assistance with locating a non-custodial parent for child support.
How Are Child Support Amounts Calculated?
Some parents agree on child support amounts without intervention or settle the matter in divorce proceedings with the assistance of lawyers. When the government gets involved in issuing a court order, they take into account several factors to calculate the amount, although every state has its own calculation:
- A child’s financial needs
- The income of the custodial parent
- The income of the non-custodial parent and their ability to pay
- The standard of living the child was accustomed to before a divorce
If circumstances change, you can request a court hearing to have child support amounts increased or decreased. The court may consider changes in jobs and income, changes in the cost of living, increased need on behalf of the child, and disabilities in the parents.
How Do I Get Child Support?
Your state’s child support agency can help you take the steps necessary to get payments from the non-custodial parent. Every state has its own plan for enforcing child support, but all are approved by and operated under the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). The OCSE ensures that all states provide these services, although some states offer more:
- Tracking down non-custodial parent
- Proving paternity
- Setting up child support orders
- Enforcing child support orders and collecting payments
- Helping the non-custodial parent find employment assistance
To begin the process, you must apply for child support with your state’s agency.
If settling child support issues were easy and always amicable, there would be no need for government intervention. Because there is, and the process can be complicated and difficult, custodial parents benefit from hiring a child support lawyer. A lawyer experienced in family law can help you navigate the system and negotiate and advocate for your child for the best possible outcome.