Child support is the duty you have to support a biological child, whether you are married to the other parent or not. Each state follows a specific set of guidelines for calculating child support. These guidelines vary a great deal from state to state but typically rely on factors similar to those used to determine spousal support and child custody, such as:
- Each parent’s net income;
- The time the children spend with each parent;
- The number, ages, and needs of the children—including health insurance, education, day care, and special needs;
- The family’s pre-divorce standard of living; and
- Hardship factors that affect a parent’s ability to pay support.
Parents can negotiate and come up with a separation agreement or prenuptial agreement to determine child support. In addition, they can work with a lawyer or mediator, use Internet calculators to get a ballpark idea of their state’s guidelines for child support, or simply come up with what a figure they think is fair.
Parents who can’t agree on child support must let a judge decide—and this can be a huge waste of time and money, because the judge will only order guideline support, which the parents could have figured out for themselves or with the assistance of a lawyer or mediator for much less money than having to go to court.
Who must pay child support
All parents—biological or adoptive, married or not—have a duty to support their children. Courts don’t usually get involved with how parents support their children unless the children are being abused or neglected.
However, when couples separate or divorce, or when a single mother applies for financial assistance from a social services agency, the courts will step in with orders about what parents must do to support the children.
How long must child support be paid?
Child support is usually paid until the child turns 18. However, sometimes child support payments can extend beyond 18 if the child lives at home and is dependent on his or her parents.
Child support can also last through age 23 if the child is still a student. Furthermore, if a child is severely disabled, child support may be ordered to be paid through his or her entire life.
Failure to pay child support
Failure to pay child support can land a parent in big trouble. A non-paying parent can face asset seizure and wage garnishment. Furthermore, because child support is a court order, a parent can be found in contempt of court, face jail time and/or lose his or her driver’s license. The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act provides for interstate enforceability of child support orders across the country.
Modifying child support
Like alimony, a child support order can be modified. However, there must be a substantial change in circumstances to modify an existing child support order. If for instance, a child needs tutoring because of a learning disability, a paying parent might need to pay more. On the other hand, if the payee hits the lottery, the paying parent might get a portion of that money or have to pay less child support going forward.
Child support can be difficult to avoid
Once child support is owed, it is owed until it is paid in full. Even bankruptcy does not discharge child support debt. Furthermore, an order against a father for non-marital child support can even survive his death and be enforced against his estate.
Parents who fall behind on child support payments can petition a judge to lower future child support payments, but this will not affect past due child support, which must still be paid in full. In fact, in many states, the law restricts judges from any retroactive modification of child support orders.
Child support and contested paternity
One other important factor in both child support and custody disputes is paternity. Sometimes a father will dispute that he is the biological parent in order to avoid paying child support.
When two parents are married, the court presumes that the husband is also the father. In order to prove otherwise, the person must show clear and convincing evidence to refute the presumption. Usually, this means submitting DNA evidence.
Conversely, when the parents are unmarried, either the child or the mother can sue to establish the relationship of a biological father. This kind of lawsuit is referred to as a paternity suit and will also often require a DNA test.
For specific answers to questions regarding child support guidelines in your state, consult a local family law attorney for assistance.