The law is pretty straightforward when it comes to child support. If you’re a parent, you're legally obligated to support your child financially, whether you're married, separated or divorced. You must pay for her needs directly if you’re the custodial parent or you must make child support payments if you’re the noncustodial parent. Under some isolated circumstances, you might be able to convince the court to terminate or reduce your child support payment.
Child support can end when there's been a change of circumstances, or it might be reduced if your income changes.
Ending Your Obligation
You might be able to end your child support obligation if you have certain grounds – a legally supportable reason why support should not continue.
For example, if your child moves out of your ex’s home and into your house, your duty to pay support should end, and your ex would most likely have to pay you. Your child might move out of your ex’s home and into a relative’s home. In this case, you’d still have to pay child support, but you'd owe it to the relative whose home your child is living in, not your ex. If your teenager leaves school and begins supporting herself in her own household, support would most likely end, but this can depend on state law. If you and your ex reconcile so you’re both living with your child again, support should stop.
You'd have to file a motion or petition with the court, asking the judge to issue an order stating that your obligation to pay child support is terminated. The exact rules for filing a motion to terminate your support order will vary by state. If you think you have grounds, talk to legal aid or an attorney to make sure, even if you plan to file the motion yourself. You can usually get the forms you’ll need from your state’s judicial website or from the court clerk.
Reducing Your Support Obligation
You can’t fight child support just because you don’t want to or are unable to pay, but if your finances become excruciatingly tight, you can file a motion with the court to modify the amount of your payments.
You’ll need provable grounds, just as you would to terminate support. The most obvious is that you’ve lost your job or suffered some other severe financial hardship. Most states require that you prove you’ve done everything possible to secure other employment in this case, but if you've honestly fallen on hard times and can’t find a new job, the court might agree to suspend your child support obligation temporarily, giving you a few months off until you can get on your feet again. Short of this, it might recalculate your support obligation based on income you receive from unemployment benefits or otherwise reduce your payments.
If you decide to file a motion for modification, you might want to do it sooner rather than later. The court can adjust your payments back to the date you file your paperwork and serve it on your ex, but no earlier than that. If you lose your job and you don't pay support or ask for a modification for six months, you’ll end up with six months’ worth of arrears at the old, higher amount, and judges typically aren't permitted to erase or vacate arrears.
And keep in mind that quitting your job so you don’t have to pay child support isn’t an option. In this case, courts can impute income to unemployed parents. This means that the judge will base child support calculations on what you could earn if you worked, regardless of whether you’re actually earning the money.
When a Motion or Petition Isn't Necessary
You may not have to file a motion or petition to modify your support obligation or to lower it if it’s been at least three years since the court issued your order or since it was last changed. The laws in most states provide for adjustments every three years without requiring parents to prove a change of circumstances, such as job loss, in court. Contact your state’s child support services if you think you qualify for this type of administrative review.
And at some point, kids move beyond the legal need for financial support. They "emancipate," reaching an age when they legally become adults. The exact rules and terms for this can vary from state to state, but speak with legal aid or a lawyer if your child is 18 or older and is not attending school because it might be possible that your child support obligation automatically ends when this occurs. But some states do require that you still file a petition with the court to officially stop child support even in this circumstance.