The law generally requires a parent to support his or her children. Enforcing this simple principle is largely a state responsibility, but the federal government has stepped up as well and created an Office of Child Support Enforcement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
That Office has published a Handbook on Child Support Enforcement that covers pretty much everything a parent needs to know about collecting or paying support.
Here are a few key highlights:
The noncustodial parent must be found before he can pay
Child support is most commonly required to be paid to the parent that has physical custody of the child (the custodial parent, usually the mother) by the parent that does not have physical custody (the noncustodial parent, usually the father). This is generally to make sure that the parent who is not physically creating a home for the child is also paying part of the costs.
In order for this noncustodial parent to be forced to pay, he must be found (there is almost no circumstances where the mother would be unknown). The handbook explains that the federal government has a parent locator service that can use records from various state agencies to help locate a missing parent.
Parents first have to request help from their state government, and then if the state government has trouble finding the missing parent the state can ask for federal help.
Fatherhood must be established
Child support cannot be ordered until the child has two legal parents. One legal parent is usually obvious, the person that gives birth is by law the mother. Establishing fatherhood can be harder, though. When a married woman gives birth the husband is usually presumed by the law to be the father.
Most of the time when an unmarried woman gives birth, a father is involved and can sign paperwork acknowledging his paternity. That is usually enough to establish that he is the father unless someone challenges it.
In rare cases, a mother may have to track down potential fathers and force them to take genetic tests to establish paternity. This can usually be done with swabs rubbed on the inside of the cheeks of the mother, potential father, and child. In some situations, blood samples may be required.
Getting the order
The most complicated part of getting child support is usually getting the child support order. Under federal law, this order must take health insurance into consideration. The process generally requires the custodial parent to file paperwork with a court asking that the non-custodial parent is ordered to pay support.
Sometimes child support will be ordered even where the parents share physical custody, and the parent that makes more will be required to give some to the other parent.
The amount of support is usually set using guidelines that take into account how much each parent earns, so it is very important to properly document income levels.
Collect the right amount
If circumstances change, perhaps by one parent losing a job or the other getting a huge raise, then the child support amount may need to be adjusted. The collection can also be a challenge if the parent refuses to pay. The federal and state governments have a range of options to forcibly take the money from a non-paying parent, by garnishing his wages for example.