How Can I Change a Child Support Order?

Learn when and how you can request a modification in the amount of child support you pay or receive.

By , Attorney · Tulane Law School

If you've been paying or receiving child support, you might be wondering if you can change the amount. Even if you hope to reach an agreement with your child's other parent, you should understand your state's rules for when, why, and how to request a modification to an existing child support order.

Understanding Child Support Guidelines

Each state has its own set of guidelines for establishing and calculating child support payments. The formulas vary from state to state. In some states, the calculation is simply based on one or both parents' net income available for support and the number of children being supported. Other states also factor in things like the amount of time a child will spend with each parent, health insurance and uninsured medical expenses for the child, day care costs, and whether either parent is supporting (or receiving support for) children from another relationship.

State laws usually allow judges some freedom to deviate from the child support guidelines if the guideline amount would be unjust or inappropriate under the specific circumstances. Some of these laws spell out certain factors that judges must consider when deciding whether to order a support amount that's higher or lower than the guidelines, such as the child's age and special needs, the standard of living the child would have enjoyed if the parents were still married, and extraordinary travel costs for exchanging children between parents who live far apart.

Just as with an initial child support order, any modification will need to be consistent with the state guidelines, unless the judge finds an acceptable reason for deviating from them.

Modifying Child Support: The Changed Circumstances Requirement

If you want to convince a judge to modify your child support order, you'll need to prove that there's been a change in circumstances since the order was established. Generally speaking, the change must be:

  • significant (which often means that it would result in a guideline amount that's at least 10% or 20% different than the current amount of support)
  • not temporary, and
  • something you didn't anticipate when the existing order was created.

Even if these conditions are met, some states won't allow you to request a child support modification unless a certain amount of time has passed since the existing order was established.

Common Reasons for Modifying Child Support

There are many valid reasons why your circumstances may have changed since the time of your child support order. A few common scenarios include:

  • Significant income changes. Many parents who pay child support may ask to have the payments lowered because they've been laid off or can no longer work due to disability, illness, or incarceration. And if you're the one receiving child support, you might be able to get the amount increased if you can prove that the other parent's income has gone up significantly. However, depending on your state's laws, you might also need to convince the judge that the current payment amount is insufficient to meet your child's needs.
  • Changes in parenting time or the number of children supported. While the noncustodial parent usually pays support to the primary custodial parent, child support calculations often factor in each parent's share of physical custody of the child. That's because the guidelines assume that parents provide direct support during the time they have the children with them. Typically, the guidelines also factor in support that either parent provides to other children. If one parent is now spending substantially more or less time caring for your child or is supporting additional children from other relationships, a modification might be warranted.
  • Change in a child's needs. You might get a modification if there have been significant, ongoing changes in your child's educational, medical, or other needs.
  • Remarriage or cohabitation. A parent's remarriage is generally not by itself enough of a reason for modifying child support, unless it results in substantial changes to the parent's expenses or income available for child support. The same is true if one of the parents has started living with a new partner.
  • Cost-of-living changes. Some states automatically provide cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) in child support orders every couple of years. Some other states allow parents to request a modification based on a significant cost-of-living increase.

Agreements to Modify Child Support

You can save time, money, and stress if you can work out an agreement with your co-parent on a child support modification. However, it's dangerous to rely on an informal agreement, because you wouldn't be able to ask the court to enforce it if your ex doesn't pay the new amount. Instead, you'll need to submit a written and signed agreement to the court. The judge may only approve it if the new amount meets the state's child support guidelines or qualifies for a deviation from the guideline.

Until the judge issues a new order, the receiving parent will only be entitled to the amount from the existing order, and the paying parent will still be legally obligated to pay that amount.

How to Request a Child Support Modification

If you haven't reached an agreement with your child's other parent, your two basic options for pursuing a child support modification are to request an agency review or file a motion (formal request) in court.

Requesting an Agency Review of Child Support

Every state has a child support enforcement agency, and part of the agency's job is to review existing child support orders to evaluate whether they need to be adjusted. Parents are generally entitled to have the state agency review their existing order once every three years, and sometimes sooner if there has been a significant change in circumstances.

As part of the review process, the agency will require both parents to submit updated financial information and documentation. If the agency decides that the existing child support order needs to be changed, the agency will generally file a modification request directly with the court. In a few states, the agency might handle the modification itself through an administrative procedure. Either way, parents have an opportunity to object to the agency's recommendation.

You can learn more about the review process and find your local child support enforcement agency in this state-by-state guide to changing child support from the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.

Requesting a Child Support Modification in Court

If you choose to ask the court directly for a change in your support payments, you'll need to file a motion for a modification to your existing child support order. In most cases, you'll file the motion in the same court that issued your existing order. The motion should include an explanation of why you believe you've met your state's changed circumstances requirements.

Both parents will need to submit their current financial information and supporting documentation to the court. For instance, if you're asking for your payments to be reduced because your income has decreased, you might submit a doctor's note as evidence that you were unable to work because of a long-term injury or disability. If you're fighting against an increase to your child support payments based on increased income, you might submit evidence from your employer showing that the extra income was temporary, like a one-time bonus or overtime payment.

At the hearing on the modification request, both parents can make their arguments for why the existing child support order should or shouldn't be changed. After the judge issues a decision, either parent may file an appeal within a certain time period.

Do You Need a Lawyer to Get a Change in Child Support?

If you and your child's other parent agree on a change, you can probably avoid the expense of hiring a lawyer to handle your modification request. You also don't need a lawyer to request an agency review of your child support order. As we mentioned above, if the agency decides that a modification is necessary, it will usually handle filing the request with the court.

If you can't reach an agreement with your child's parent or get help from an agency, you might be able to file a modification request on your own. Your court clerk's office or self-help desk can provide the relevant forms and information to get started.

However, if the other parent has already hired a lawyer or your case involves interstate support or other complications, you could be at a serious disadvantage without a lawyer's help. Consider consulting with an experienced family lawyer in your state who can offer advice on your best path forward.

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