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Guide to Child Support: How It’s Calculated and More

When a couple divorces, their children are one of the most important considerations of the family court system. 

Both parents are required by law to provide financial support for their children until they become adults. Child support is the court-ordered amount paid by one parent, typically the noncustodial parent, to the custodial parent to make sure both parents share this responsibility fairly. 

If you are a parent navigating a divorce, it’s important to understand how child support may affect you, what factors are used to calculate it, and what you can and cannot do to change or enforce it.

How much child support will I pay or receive?

The main goal of child support is to help children receive the same standard of financial care they would have if their parents were still together. But family laws vary from state to state, and so does the way child support is calculated

Depending on where you live, child support may be calculated based on two models. While most states calculate child support in proportion to each parent's income (income shares model), some take a percentage of the noncustodial parent’s income alone (percentage of income model). Still others use hybridized versions of either. 

Even if you share custody of your children, one parent will generally still be responsible for paying child support to the other. In this case, the terms of your shared custody would be an important consideration when support is calculated. 

Variables that may help determine child support amount

While the most significant factor in calculating child support is income, the court may factor in other variables, such as the following:

  • Your custody arrangements
  • How much time each of you spends with your child
  • Your children’s ages
  • Other income either parent receives, such as commissions, bonuses, disability, unemployment, or pensions
  • Which parent provides health insurance for the child
  • Which parent pays for daycare, education, or specialized needs
  • If either parent pays or receives child support or alimony from a previous marriage
  • If either parent is responsible for children from another marriage
  • If either parent is remarried or lives with a new partner that contributes to the expenses of the household

In each case, the court will have the final say as to what will be considered in the calculation.

Can I choose my own child support amount?

Couples who work together amicably may be able to negotiate their own child custody agreement within reason. However, this would still need to be reviewed and agreed to by the court. 

The judge will want to make sure of the following:

  • Both parents fully understand their child support rights
  • Both parents fully understand what the support amount would be under the state’s guidelines
  • Neither parent feels pressured or forced to agree to the new amount
  • Neither parent has applied for or receives public assistance
  • Both parents and the court feel the agreed-upon support is in the child’s best interest

How will I receive or pay child support?

Once a child support order is established, it will be coordinated through your state’s agency that monitors child support. 

In most cases, child support funds are withheld from the responsible parent’s income and paid through the agency or directly into the other parent’s bank account. There are advantages to this method since it doesn’t require parents to have contact in the exchange, which can be helpful if the divorce has been contentious. It also holds the paying parent accountable for late or missing payments. 

For situations where wage garnishment isn’t available or appropriate, states offer alternatives for payment. These can include mailing or face-to-face payment through cash, check, money order, or through credit or debit card payment services. However, for couples who use these options, there should be stringent record-keeping, as enforcement can be more difficult. 

What if I can’t afford to pay child support?

Child support is based on a financial snapshot at the time of your divorce, but life circumstances can change. You may find that at some point, you’re no longer able to pay your child support as it was ordered. 

But child support is a formal court order, and failure to pay could have serious legal consequences. If your financial picture has changed since your child support was set, you can’t arbitrarily pay a new amount and just hope your ex understands. If you feel you can’t afford to pay your child support, you will have to request a modification with the court and submit proof of why you can no longer pay. 

What if my ex fails to pay child support?

If you’re the recipient of child support, you are legally entitled to these payments by court order. Non-payment of child support should be handled by the court, not you alone. 

It’s important not to resort to actions like withholding visitation or other non-legal alternatives because this can work against you. Courts view child support and parenting agreements as separate issues, so withholding visitation rights could result in a violation of your own agreement with the court. 

If your ex has stopped or modified the amount they pay, contact your local child support agency. In the meantime, if you have a good working relationship with your ex, encourage them to seek a formal support modification through the appropriate legal channels. You may also want to reach out to an attorney to understand your options.

Can child support change over time?

Life is all about change, and some of your life changes may affect you financially. Depending on your state, there may be rules about when and if you can modify child support. 

Child support modifications must be done through the court system according to your state’s laws, and there will need to be a valid reason for the change. If you seek a child support modification, the court may consider it if the changes to your financial circumstances adhere to one or more of the following:

  • The changes were not anticipated at the time of the initial support order.
  • The changes will be permanent.
  • The changes are substantial enough to require a significant alteration in the amount of your support obligation.

Factors that the court may consider include things like an involuntary change in income, a change in parenting time or custody, the number of children being supported, or a change in a child’s needs. Some states also recognize periodic cost-of-living adjustments. 

Recommended reading: What Can I Use Child Support Payments For?

When does child support end?

Child support will end depending on your state’s definition of the “age of majority” or when your child becomes a legal adult. Child support will also end if a child becomes emancipated before legal adulthood.

There are some exceptions to these rules. For example, support can be ordered beyond majority or emancipation if the money is for a child’s post-secondary education or the care of a child with special needs

Hello Divorce can help with child support calculations

At Hello Divorce, our mission is to help make your divorce journey more affordable and less stressful. If you will be paying or receiving child support, our Divorce Navigator software offers a child support calculator that can be customized depending on where you live. To learn more about our services, schedule a free 15-minute call to discuss how we may be able to help you through your divorce.