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What Is Child Support – Laws & Guidelines for Payments

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), about 41% of first marriages end in divorce. For second and third marriages, that number increases to 60% and 73%, respectively.

Single parents with children should have a basic understanding of child support. Unless parental rights have been legally terminated, every parent in the U.S. must contribute financially to the raising of his or her child.

What Is Child Support?

Child support is the financial obligation you have to support your child as he or she matures. If you have custody of your child, the courts assume that you fulfill your financial obligation. If your child does not live with you, however, the courts may require that you pay child support to the custodial parent.

If the court requires that you pay child support, you will make payments until your child reaches the age of majority or adulthood, until your child is active-duty military, or until the court declares your child emancipated. If your child has special needs, you may make child support payments past childhood.

The court may legally terminate your parental rights and financial responsibilities for your child, if both you and the other parent agree that you no longer have to provide support, or if you allow someone else to adopt your child.

Child Support Obligation

How Responsibility for Child Support Is Determined

Each state has its own guidelines for child support, and the judge typically determines the final amount. The discussion about child support begins with custody.

If one parent has sole custody, the non-custodial parent typically pays most of the child support. The custodial parent may be a stay-at-home mom, or a parent who works part-time in order to care for the child. The child support payments reflect the fact that the custodial parent probably doesn’t have enough financial resources to completely provide for the child.

Joint Custody Scenarios

In the case of joint custody, calculating the child support for each parent becomes more complicated. One way to determine child support in joint custody cases accounts for two factors:

  1. The percentage each parent contributed to the joint income may determine the outcome of a joint custody case. The more income one contributes, the more the person has to pay towards child support.
  2. In addition, the percentage of time each parent actually has physical custody could determine the outcome of a joint custody case. When a child lives most of the time with one parent, the court assumes that the parent with a greater amount of physical custody bears certain costs in raising the child. For example, if your child lives with you only 20% of the time, you might pay more in child support than your ex-spouse, because 80% of the time he or she devotes more physical, financial, and emotional resources.

Ultimately, no clear-cut formula for the exact amount each parent must pay exists, as it depends on factors unique to each situation.

Previously Unmarried Parents

If you were not previously married to the child’s other parent, you still owe child support, but the factors involved in determining child support can become more complicated. Factors that play into determining child support include whether or not the child ever actually lived with you, resources of the custodial parent, your income and ability to make child support payments, and how much time you spend with the child.

Children are entitled to some form of support from non-custodial parents. Stepparents do not have a legal responsibility to financially support their stepchildren, unless they adopt the children, terminating the biological parent’s legal rights and requirements as a parent.

Previously Unmarried Parents

How Child Support Payment Amounts Are Determined

The court determines the amounts of child support payments depending upon the parents’ income, and the amount of time each parent has physical custody of the child. Income, as identified by the court, may include:

  • Wages
  • Tips
  • Commissions
  • Bonuses
  • Self-employment earnings
  • Disability payments
  • Social Security benefits
  • Unemployment benefits
  • Workers’ compensation
  • Annuities
  • Interest
  • Veteran’s benefits
  • Pensions
  • Private or Government Retirement benefits

Additional Factors that Affect Child Support Allocations and Payments

As you prepare for child support proceedings, it can help to become acquainted with the process in your state, so that you know what to expect. Once the court determines custody, and reviews the circumstances of your case, the court sets the amount of child support payments based on a variety of factors, including the following:

  • Income of the Parent Paying Child Support. The more a parent earns, the more he or she must provide in child support. Most courts recognize financial hardship, and understand that you need to provide for your own needs, as well as support your child.
  • Quality of Life Experienced by the Child Prior to the Parents’ Split. The court looks at the living conditions of the family prior to the split. If there was a high standard of living prior to the divorce, the parent responsible for child support may have to help the child maintain that lifestyle.
  • Expenses Associated with Raising the Child. The court also looks at reasonable expenses associated with raising the child in a particular area. If you live in a city with a higher cost of living, the costs of raising a child might be higher than the costs of living in a lower-cost, rural area. Additionally, the court may consider products and experiences associated with a specific socioeconomic status. The court takes into account the costs of food, housing, clothing, transportation, education, and entertainment.
  • Specific Needs of the Child. In some cases, a child may have special needs. If a child has physical needs due to a disability, or has a learning disorder or mental disability, the judge takes that into account when determining the child support payments.
  • Income and Other Financial Resources Available to the Custodial Parent. In addition to looking at the needs of the child and the finances of the non-custodial parent, the court also takes into account the resources available to the custodial parent. If a custodial parent has a good income and a high personal net worth, the non-custodial parent may not have to pay as much in child support. The court may also consider the custodial parent’s support system, including family members willing to help.

Changing Child Support Payment Amounts

Once child support payments are set, it takes legal action to change them. A change in circumstances may necessitate a change in child support payments.

For example, if you increase the amount of time the child is physically in your custody, the court may decrease your child support payments to reflect the change. The court may also reduce child support payments if you lose your job and become unemployed, or are forced to take a new job with lower pay.

Few judges reduce child support payments if you quit your job to pursue a hobby, or go back to school. Getting laid off is typically viewed differently than voluntarily leaving your job, especially if appears as though you quit your job to avoid having to pay child support.

You may get temporary changes to your child support payments. If an emergency strikes, or if you have some short-term financial problems, the court may temporarily decrease your child support payments. Additionally, if the custodial parent experiences financial difficulties, the non-custodial parent might see a temporary increase in child support payments. Even if both parents agree on changes to child support payments, both parents have to go to court in order to have the amount legally changed.

Consequences of Not Paying Child Support

The court sets the amount of child support and the payment schedule. Some of the potential consequences of refusing to pay required child support payments include:

  • Property seizure
  • Suspension of your business license
  • Suspension of your driver’s license
  • Tax refund interception
  • Wage garnishment
  • Arrest and time in jail

If circumstances make it difficult for you to pay child support as ordered, you need to let the court know as soon as possible. Don’t let the problem get out of control. Be upfront and honest about your hardship.

Separating Visitation and Child Support

In addition, parents cannot respond to visitation disagreements by threatening to withhold child support payments. If the custodial parent does not allow you to see your child as ordered by the court, do not make the mistake of retaliating by withholding child support payments. Refusing to submit child support payment is illegal, and this hurts your child more than the other parent.

The courts separate visitation and child support. If you do not receive your visitation rights, you need to go to the court with your evidence, and have the custody agreement enforced. Keep paying support as required, to avoid the consequences of withholding child support payments.

What If the Non-Custodial Parent Isn’t Paying What’s Owed?

If you are the custodial parent, and the non-custodial parent doesn’t pay child support, contact your state attorney or district attorney. According to federal law, state agencies must help you collect delinquent child support payments. Many states have Recovery Services offices, designed to help you track down delinquent parents, and recover the child support payments owed to you.

Keep records of the last payments received and copies of the court documents establishing the child support payments and schedule. With this information, you can get the help you need to collect unpaid child support.

Child Support and Taxes

You don’t have to pay income taxes on child support that you receive on behalf of your children. If you pay child support, you cannot deduct it from your income.

Who Gets to Claim the Child as a Dependent?

The parent who can claim the child as a dependent can receive a significant tax deduction. Typically, the parent with whom the child lives for more than half the year claims the child as a dependent. Only one parent can claim a dependent on a tax return; both parents cannot claim the same dependent.

In cases where the parents disagree, it helps to have knowledgeable tax attorneys involved. Even if both parents agree which parent can claim the child as a dependent, it can help to have a tax attorney work out the details of the tax deduction.

Transferring the Dependent Tax Exemption

In some cases, the non-custodial parent can receive the exemption for a dependent. If the custodial parent completes and signs Form 8332, he or she can transfer the exemption. The form should be filed with the non-custodial parent’s tax return.

A low-income custodial parent, who may not benefit from this exemption, might choose to sign this form. If the non-custodial parent has a higher adjusted gross income (AGI), and can benefit more from the deduction than the custodial parent, he or she can offer something in return for the tax deduction. Some parents use this dependent exemption as a bargaining chip in child support agreements and divorce settlement negotiations.

If there are multiple children, parents can arrange to allocate the dependents between the two parties. Check with attorneys to try and 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 two different income tax brackets.

Final Word

The law requires that all parents have a financial obligation to their children. If your child isn’t living with you, you are required to make child support payments, unless the custodial parent waives that right, or your parental rights are legally terminated. If you fail in this duty, your finances can be affected, and you could end up in jail.

If you are the custodial parent, you should ensure that you receive your legally granted child support from the other parent. This helps ease the financial burden associated with raising a child who lives with you most of the time. Make sure you understand the child support laws and procedures in your state, and make sure you keep records of payments made or received, to ensure the child support agreement is enforced.

Have you had experiences paying or receiving child support? What are some of the biggest challenges that you’ve faced?

Miranda Marquit
Miranda Marquit is a freelance writer and professional blogger specializing in personal finance. She writes for several web sites, and her work has appeared in numerous online and offline publications.

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