About Child Support Laws

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Minor children need food, clothing, health care and a roof over their heads, just like everybody else does, but they are too young to buy these things with their own earnings. The responsibility falls to their parents, each of whom has a legal duty to provide financial assistance to their kids. Though the marriage may end, the duty to provide for children continues.

When parents divorce, the duty to provide financially for minor children is often enforced as court-ordered child support. Child support laws vary among states, but some basic principles apply to all.

Who Pays Child Support?

When parents separate, one of the concerns they must negotiate or have a judge decide is physical custody -- where the children will live. Often one parent has primary physical custody, while the other parent gets occasional visitation. In this case, the parent with physical custody is called the custodial parent. The noncustodial parent generally is ordered to pay child support to the custodial parent.

In the case of joint custody, the parents split up the children's time relatively equally between their houses. In many states, even if the time is split 50/50, a parent with significantly greater income will be ordered to pay child support to a parent with less income.

How Is Child Support Calculated?

Most states have their own guidelines and formulas for family court judges to use in determining how much child support to award. These fall generally into two main types of formulas: the income shares model and the percentage of income model.

The income shares model, adapted in most states, first calculates the total amount of money needed to support the children. Then the court adds up the income earned by both parents, and calculates each parent's proportionate share of the total income. Each is responsible for that share of the child support.

As an example of the income shares model, imagine that the children require $3,000 per month, the custodial mother earns $100,000 and the noncustodial father makes $50,000. The total income earned by the parents is $150,000 per year, and the father's proportionate share of that income is one-third. Therefore, he is responsible for paying one-third of the $3,000 per month required to support the children, or $1,000, which he pays in child support to the custodial mother. The mother is responsible for two-thirds or $2,000, but since she is the custodial parent, the law presumes that she contributes her assessed amount by housing and caring for the children.

The percentage of income model operates more like a percentage tax on a noncustodial parent's income. States with this child support model require the noncustodial parent to pay a set percentage of his income in child support for one child, a larger percentage for two children and so on, regardless of the income of the other parent. For example, a father who makes $1,000 a month and has one child pays the set percentage of that income in child support every month even if the child's mother earns a million dollars a year.

How Long Do Payments Continue?

Child support payments continue until a child is emancipated. This usually happens when she reaches the age of 18 or graduates from high school. It can also happen if she marries, joins the military or successfully petitions the court to be pronounced emancipated.

What Happens If a Parent Doesn't Pay?

These days, state governments are involved in helping enforce child support orders. All states use wage garnishment to enforce child support orders. In many states, the custodial parent automatically gets an order of garnishment from the court at the same time as the child support order. Under wage garnishment, a portion of the payer-parent's wages are withheld and paid to the other parent as child support.

If a parent owes back child support, the custodial parent can also seek a judgment against him for arrears. When the court grants the judgment, many different avenues of judgment enforcement are open to the custodial parent, including wage garnishment, seizure of the noncustodial parent's property and tax refunds and liens on the noncustodial parent's property. Some states refuse to allow a deadbeat parent to renew a driver's license and even impose jail time.


  • Your state probably has a child enforcement office that helps parents collect unpaid child support. It is a good source of information about your state's laws, whether you are the parent paying or receiving child support.


About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.