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What Can I Use Child Support Payments For?

Whether you were married at the time of conception and divorced later or never married at all, you will likely give or receive child support payments if you share a child with someone you are no longer intimate with. However, there’s a lot of gray area when it comes to child support payments. This leaves many parents scratching their heads over what their funds can be used for and how these payments may change over time. 

Child support isn’t a one-size-fits-all topic, but grasping basic child support guidelines can help parents on both ends — the giver and the receiver — feel more comfortable.

Child support covers basic needs

Child support is a regularly recurring payment one parent makes to the other for the purpose of financial support for their children. While the parent who receives child support payments has some flexibility in how they utilize the funds, the money is intended to cover a child’s basic needs, such as housing, clothing, food, and transportation expenses. 

Some examples of basic needs which child support covers include:

  • Seasonally appropriate clothing for the entire year
  • School supplies such as pencils, notebooks, and backpacks
  • Rent or mortgage payments
  • Household groceries and other necessities
  • Transportation-related expenses such as car payments, fuel, or mass transit fees

The parent who receives child support is not typically required to disclose what they use the funds for. It is assumed they will use the payments to care for the child. In most cases, though, it is fairly clear how the payments are being used by the receiving parent.

Does child support ever cover more than the basics?

While most parents use child support funds to cover basic needs, these payments can be allocated for a few other expenses related to raising children.

For example, many child support agreements include coverage for healthcare. This encompasses insurance premiums and other medical support above and beyond what insurance typically covers. The amount isn’t typically enough to cover extraordinary costs such as orthodontia and major surgery, but it can help with urgent care visits and necessary medications for infections.

Additionally, for parents who elect to send their children to a private school, most states will include tuition costs in their child support calculations. These costs are usually split 50/50 or equitably divided based on each parent’s reported earnings. 

All other expenses, including childcare costs and extracurricular activities, are typically divided equitably between parents. In fact, states like California and New York do not allow these costs to be included in child support estimates because they are not considered necessary expenses for raising a child. However, parents can petition for addendums on their parenting plan that explain how these types of fees will be divided and if one parent will reimburse the other for them.

Can child support be used as spousal support?

As previously stated, child support payments are intended to help a parent cover their child’s basic needs. While these needs sometimes overlap with parental obligations, like rent and car payments, child support funds are not meant to serve the same purpose as spousal support or alimony.

Spousal support is meant to benefit a disadvantaged spouse in a divorce. The intended use for spousal support differs from the intended use for child support, and parents must be careful not to misconstrue what child support payments should and should not be used for.

What can I do if my spouse fails to make payments?

According to the 1984 Child Support Enforcement Act, district and state attorneys are required to help parents collect unpaid child support payments. This typically results in a court hearing in which the child’s noncustodial parent creates a payment schedule for all past-due and recurring child support payments moving forward. Failure to appear in court or maintain this established payment schedule could result in jail time for the noncompliant parent.

Additionally, district and state attorneys can help individuals with child support enforcement through the following actions:

  • Intercepting the non-compliant parent’s federal tax return
  • Garnishing the non-compliant parent’s wages
  • Placing liens or seizing property that can be used as collateral

What can I do if I think my spouse misuses the money I pay them?

In general, parents who receive child support payments from their co-parent have a lot of flexibility in how they utilize the funds. As a result, most states do not have a clear system in place for handling disputes regarding child support use.

In most states, the only thing the parent paying support can do if they feel funds are being misused is contact their local Department of Child Services to do a welfare check on the child to make sure they are being adequately cared for. However, some states do have laws in place that require parents to provide records regarding how they use their child support payments.

For example, Colorado allows payees to request a mediator to investigate how the recipient is using child support payments. Meanwhile, other states like Florida, Oklahoma, Oregon, and Washington allow for discretionary orders or addendums to child support orders that require parents to account for how they use child support funds. 

Will child support automatically increase with inflation?

Most of the time, child support payments are set amounts that do not change unless parents request a modification to their child support agreement. This means financial support does not automatically increase with inflation unless you’ve accounted for that in your initial write-up.

In some cases, parents or their attorneys may add a “cost of living clause” to their child support orders. If this clause is added, the agreed-upon child support payments increase annually based on the Consumer Price Index or another economic indicator. Without this, you would need to take your child support case to court to get an adjustment.

Can I request an increase or decrease in child support?

There are times when one or both parents may want to file a motion to adjust the disbursement of payments. You can do this if you or your child’s noncustodial parent experience a dramatic shift in income or if one parent ends up incarcerated. You can also do this if the child incurs new ongoing expenses such as orthodontia, therapy sessions related to a physical disability or learning disability, or a change from public to private schools.

If you request an increase or decrease, you will likely need to take your child support case information before a mediator or to court. However, you can learn more about your individual state’s requirements for filing a motion to modify child support payments by visiting the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Child Support Enforcement website.

At what age does child support end?

Most of the time, child support payments cease upon the child’s eighteenth birthday or high school graduation. Once this happens, the parent paying support can file a motion to terminate payments. In most states, this petition must be approved before payments legally end.

However, some states extend payments beyond a child’s eighteenth birthday if the child still lives at home, is still enrolled in high school, or has a diagnosed disability that requires parents to continue providing financial support through their adulthood. If you are in doubt, it’s a good idea to check with an attorney before ceasing child support payments for any reason.

Child support can be one of the most complicated parts of any divorce. At Hello Divorce, we understand you have questions about your estimated child support obligations and so much more. We aren't just here to wrap up your divorce — we want to provide you with the additional information, services, and emotional support you need to stand on your own two feet again post-divorce.