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What Is Child Support And How Does It Work?

Sarah Li Cain4-minute read
December 22, 2020

Raising a child can be quite costly, especially if you factor in rising health care and educational costs. The concept of child support can be complicated and confusing for everyone involved since laws may differ depending on where the parents live.

While it’s crucial that you check the guidelines in your state and enlist the help of a family attorney, you can learn about child support in general and how it works yourself.

Child Support Definition

Child support is regular payments given from one parent to the other to help provide financial support to a child or children. This is typical in divorce situations where the non-custodial parent pays child support to the custodial parent. 

Child support can be paid voluntarily, by an administrative agency or court order, depending on the state of residence. The amount paid or received, plus the expenses it needs to cover, may also vary.

Who Gets Child Support?

Typically the custodial parent who receives child support. This is the parent who has primary physical custody of the child or children. In other words, the child mainly lives with this parent, who is responsible for the child’s day-to-day care.

A custodial parent may be designated by a court if there is a child custody dispute after a divorce, agreed upon by both parents, or assumed naturally if only one parent is raising the child and the other hasn’t made any effort to seek custody.

However, there may be cases where both parents are considered custodial if the child spends an equal amount of time with them. In this instance, one parent may still be required to receive child support payments if there is a significant disparity between their incomes.

Who Pays Child Support?

Generally, the non-custodial parent pays child support, even if they have visitation rights. This is most often the case, but it could also be the parent who makes significantly more than the other parent in joint custody situations.

What Is Child Support Used For?

Child support is meant to be used to care for the children involved and not for the custodial parent’s own expenses. It’s designed for children to maintain their standard of living or lifestyle they’re used to and to ensure that all their basic needs are met.

The following list is an example of what child support is supposed to be used for:

  • Groceries: This can include snacks, beverages and items for a child’s meals
  • Clothing: Items can include jackets, shoes and school uniforms
  • Shelter: Costs such as utilities and rent can be included here
  • Medical care: Anything medical-related, such as emergency surgery or eyeglass prescription that doesn't fall under health insurance can count
  • Insurance: Expenses include premiums for employee-sponsored plans
  • Education: Depending on the child, expenses can include private school tuition and daycare expenses
  • Recreation: If a child participates in extracurricular activities, expenses like sports equipment and club fees can fall under this category

What Should Child Support Not Be Used For?

Child support should not be used as personal income for the custodial parent.

The following are examples of unacceptable uses of child support:

  • Leisure activities
  • Gambling
  • Vacations
  • Purchasing luxury items
  • Salon services for the parent
  • Clothing only for the parent

If there happens to be money left over at the end of the month, the money should go toward future expenses for the child. Both parents need to clearly define their responsibilities so there is an understanding of what the money should and shouldn’t be used for.

How Is The Amount Of Child Support Determined?

Each state will have its own established guidelines to determine an amount that a parent is required to pay for child support. The following are some of the factors courts consider: 

  • State-specific laws
  • Needs of the child
  • Number of children
  • Child’s previous standard of living
  • Income and needs of custodial parent (in some cases the court will base the amount of child support on both parents’ incomes)
  • Income of non-custodial parent and ability to pay

How Is Child Support Payment Enforced?

The two main ways payments are administered are through a child support enforcement agency and a court petition. Under the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984, state or district attorneys are required to help a parent collect child support payments. The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) also helps parents to enforce child support payments if the non-custodial parent lives in another state.

There are also federal laws that ensure child support payments through various means such as intercepting tax refunds or garnishing wages.

In cases where there is a change in the child’s need or the non-custodial parent’s circumstances have been drastically changed (like losing their source of income or declaring bankruptcy), the parent can file a modification to the existing child support agreement. This is to ensure parents are still abiding by the regulations even if their life situation may prevent them from adhering to the original agreement.

What If Ordered Child Support Is Not Paid?

If child support is not paid, the district attorney will serve the non-custodial parent with papers to arrange payment. This serves as a warning that if child support payments aren’t paid, the parent could face jail time (though it’s used as a last resort).

Other consequences the district attorney could enforce include

  • Wage garnishment
  • Property liens or seizing property
  • Suspending a business or occupational license
  • Revoking a driver’s license
  • Garnishing tax refund
  • Reporting non-payment to credit bureaus
  • Deny issuance of a passport

If the paying parent falls behind on payments, they can request to reduce their future child support payments. The amount owed for past-due payments still needs to be paid in full.

The Bottom Line On Child Support

Child support payments are intended to be used for the well-being of your children, whether you’re the one paying or receiving the money. Raising a child isn’t easy and there will be challenges. If both parents try their best to work together to ensure their child’s welfare, it will go a long way.

One of the best ways to afford to pay or budget child support payments effectively is to learn how to take care of your personal finances – check out our Learning Center for help.

Sarah Li Cain

Sarah Li Cain is a freelance personal finance, credit and real estate writer who works with Fintech startups and Fortune 500 financial services companies to educate consumers through her writing. She’s also a candidate for the Accredited Financial Counselor designation and the host of Beyond The Dollar, where she and her guests have deep and honest conversations on how money affects our well-being.