Child Support

    Child support is a legal obligation that a biological parent has for providing for the basic living expenses of a child: food, clothing, shelter, health care and education. It is a noncustodial parent’s financial obligation to make monthly or periodic payments to a custodial parent.

    The responsibility applies when one parent no longer lives with a child (or children) and/or is no longer the primary caregiver.  Such a situation can stem from a divorce or marriage separation, or an instance in which the parents were never married.

    Laws governing child support are passed and enforced by the federal government, particularly the Administration for Children and Families. State laws also govern child support regulations and may go beyond federal provisions.

    A 2011 U.S. Census Bureau report revealed the following statistics about child support in 2009 and 2010:
    • About 6.8 million custodial parents in the U.S. had child support agreements in place.
    • 55 percent of custodial single mothers and 30 percent of custodial single fathers were awarded child support.
    • 90 percent of support agreements were court-established.
    • Child support obligations totaled $35.1 billion, an average of $5,960 a year for each custodial parent.
    • More than a quarter of custodial parents sought government assistance in collecting child support payments.
    • Over 28 percent of custodial parents had incomes below the poverty line.

    How Child Support is Determined

    Child support amounts and responsibilities are normally decided on a case-by-case basis in a state trial court (although private agreements can be made by the parents themselves). Amounts are based upon the parents’ incomes and resources, as well as the amount of time each parent has physical custody of the child.

    States generally follow one of the following basic formulas for calculating an obligation:
    • Percentage of Income Model: Support is calculated based on the non-custodial parent’s income, because it assumes that the custodial parent is already spending the bulk of his or her income on the child or children.
    • Income Shares Model: The support obligation is divided between the parents so that the level of support resembles what it would be if the parents were living together and sharing expenses equally.
    • The Melson Formula: This is a version of the Income Shares model, but before determining any support obligation it applies several additional criteria. Those include a Standard of Living Adjustment if a parent’s income increases, costs of child care and any extraordinary medical expenses.
    States often use supplementary criteria when determining child support payments. Additional factors include:
    • Quality of Life: The court may examine the living conditions of the family prior to separation or divorce. The parent responsible for child support may have to help maintain a certain lifestyle if the courts so decides.
    • Associated Expenses: The court examines the expenses associated with raising a child in a particular area. If the child lives in an area with a high cost of living, the parent will normally be responsible for higher support amounts.
    • Specific Needs: A child with special needs or one with a physical or mental disability might require a higher level of support.
    • Financial Resources Available to the Custodial Parent: Non-custodial obligations may be reduced if the custodial parent has sufficient income or resources to offset required support.
    • Medical Support: A Child Support Enforcement agency must petition the court to include medical support if employment-related or other reasonably priced group health insurance is available.

    Once child support payments are set by a judge or court official, they can only be changed by legal action. To ensure that payments remain fair, either parent can request to have a child support order reviewed every three years or whenever there is a substantial change, positive or negative, in the circumstances of either parent.

    For example, if a noncustodial parent loses a job, he or she can petition the court for a temporary decrease in support payments. Conversely, a custodial parent can request an increase in support payments if the financial situation of the noncustodial parent has substantially improved.

    Support Order Enforcement

    According the federal law, each state must set up a Child Support Enforcement (CSE) agency.

    Each CSE has several overarching responsibilities, including the following:
    • Helping to locate noncustodial parents
    • Establishing paternity via genetic testing
    • Enforcing child support orders
    • Modifying orders when appropriate.

    Federal law also requires each state to set up a State Disbursement Unit. Disbursement Units are responsible for receiving and sending out child support payments. This is to create a record of child support payments paid and received.

    The national government has also created the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS) to enforce child support obligations. Any individual entitled to receive child support can get information about a parent obligor, and each state CSE is required by law to assist in locating a parent who has moved or stopped making support payments.

    To comply with FPLS regulations, states must keep directories of new hires. Employers must report all new hiring within 20 days, and the information must be forwarded to a National Directory of New Hires to help locate a noncustodial parent who has changed jobs.

    The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) further requires state CSEs to pursue child support enforcement just as vigorously for children who live outside their jurisdictions, as they do for children who reside within them. This is to protect children and custodial parents who live in different states than noncustodial parents.

    States can apply various techniques to enforce child support payments.

    They have the ability to do any of the following:
    • Intercept state and federal tax refunds
    • Freeze bank accounts
    • Seize real or personal property
    • Suspend a business license
    • Force an employer to garnish wages
    • Revoke a driver’s license
    • Deny a passport
    • Arrest and prosecute an individual for nonpayment of child support or for contempt of court

    Additionally, parents generally cannot have child support obligations discharged in bankruptcy.

    For all the large and gloomy numbers tied to child support, not all is bleak. A periodic report from the U.S. Census Bureau – Number, Timing, and Duration of Marriages and Divorces – shows that the American divorce rate is dropping as our culture continues to adapt to the two-income marriage. This suggests that child support obligations may see a decrease over the next few years.

    Bill Fay

    Bill Fay is a journalism veteran with a nearly four-decade career in reporting and writing for daily newspapers, magazines and public officials. His focus at Debt.org is on frugal living, veterans' finances, retirement and tax advice. Bill can be reached at bfay@debt.org.

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