If you're a parent facing divorce or an unmarried parent, you probably have lots of questions and concerns about child support—especially whether you have to pay support, how much the payments will be, and how long child support lasts. Read on to learn the basics of how child support works.
All parents have a legal obligation to support their children financially. Sometimes even nonbiological parents are also responsible for this support (more on that below).
When the parents are living together, they meet their support obligation by directly providing for the children's needs. When they split up—or if they never lived together—the question of who pays child support depends largely on the physical custody arrangements. Typically, the noncustodial parent typically pays their share of the child support obligation to the custodial parent.
Child support laws don't discriminate based on gender. The child support obligation is primarily based on parental income and custody arrangements.
Historically, women were much more likely to have primary physical custody of their children, which meant that men were more likely to pay child support. However, it's becoming more common for fathers to have shared parenting or even primary physical custody. If you're a father who has (or will have) primary physical custody of your children, you have the right to request child support from the mother.
Yes. The legal obligation to support your children applies to all parents, whether or not they ever married. If you never married the child's mother, however, there's an important first step before you'll be ordered to pay child support: establishing paternity (or parenthood, as some states call it).
In all states, unmarried fathers may sign a voluntary declaration of paternity or parentage. If both parents sign and submit the official form (by the deadline, if there is one in their state), it will be the same as if a court entered a paternity judgment. That means that both of them will have the same legal rights and obligations of parenthood.
If you don't believe you're the child's father, a judge will have to decide the issue. Usually, this will involve genetic testing, along with other proof of paternity. (Learn more about establishing paternity in your state.)
Don't ignore any official documents (from the court or a child support agency) that list you as a child's alleged biological father. If you miss the deadline for responding, the judge may enter a default judgment against you. That means you wouldn't have the opportunity to participate in the proceedings and present proof that you weren't the father. It also could mean that you'll be on the hook for child support, even if you're not the biological parent.
Under the law in most states, if a child was born or conceived while the mother was married, the law will assume that the husband is the natural father. Typically, this presumption is "rebuttable," which means that the husband may present evidence to prove that he isn't the child's biological father.
In some states, such as Texas, the law will also presume that a man is the father if he held the child out as his own and lived with the child, at least for a certain period of time. (Tex. Fam. Code § 160.204 (2023).)
When the paternity presumption applies and hasn't been successfully rebutted, the mother's ex may have to pay child support even if he isn't the biological father.
If you're hoping to challenge a paternity presumption, you should speak with an experienced family law attorney who will know how to gather and present the kind of evidence you'll need.
People who've been raising a child with a same-sex spouse may have to pay child support when they separate or divorce, even if they didn't go through a legal adoption and aren't genetically related to the child. But it might depend on where they live.
A few states have rewritten their laws on the paternity presumption (discussed above) to use gender-neutral language, so that the presumption clearly applies to same-sex couples. For instance, the laws in California and Washington provide that a "person" or "individual" is presumed to be the parent of a child born or conceived during that person's marriage to the child's mother. (Cal. Fam. Code § 7611; Wash. Rev. Code § 26.26A.115 (2023).)
Most states still use gender-specific language in their laws on the parenthood presumption for children born of a marriage. However, a growing number of state courts have held that those laws must be interpreted in a gender-neutral way, so that they don't run afoul of the U.S. Supreme Court's holding that same-sex spouses are entitled to equal rights when it comes to children born of the marriage (Pavan v. Smith, 137 S.Ct. 2075 (2017)) . For example, courts in Texas and Pennsylvania have applied the paternity presumption to same-sex spouses of the biological mothers (Interest of D.A.A.-B, 657 S.W.3d 549 (Tex. Ct. App. 2022); Interest of A.M., 223 A.3d 691 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2019).)
Here again, it's important that you speak with an experienced family law attorney in your state if you're dealing with a dispute about support or custody of a child born during a same-sex marriage.
The exact formula for calculating child support is different from state to state. In general, the basic support amount is primarily based on parental income. But the definition of parental income can vary. For example, some states use only the noncustodial parent's income. Other states take both parents' incomes into account. State guidelines generally provide detailed lists of the kinds of income that are included, as well as the items that may be deducted from gross income.
Also, the states' child support guidelines typically make various adjustments to the basic support amount, such as for shared parenting and health care expenses. And state laws typically allow judges to order an amount of child support that's higher or lower than the guideline amount when strict application of the guidelines would be inappropriate or unjust under the specific circumstances. (Learn more about the child support laws in your state.)
The child support order will usually state exactly how often support must be paid. Monthly payments are fairly standard, but they might be weekly, biweekly, or even bimonthly. You may request a particular schedule, but it's up to the judge to determine whether the requested schedule is acceptable.
Payment of child support is coordinated by and through the state's designated child support agency. The default payment method is for the support amount to be withheld from the paying parent's income, and then paid to the state agency for distribution to the parent who's receiving child support.
In situations where income withholding isn't possible or appropriate (such as when a parent is self-employed), states normally provide a variety of other methods for making payments to the relevant state agency. These may include sending a check or money order or using credit, debit card, or other payment services approved by the state.
Legal requirements for when child support ends vary from state to state. In general, parents must provide financial support until their children reach the age of majority (which is 18 in most states) or are otherwise emancipated—usually when they're married, join the military, or get a court order for emanicipation.
If children are still in high school when they reach the age of majority, many states require their parents to continue supporting them for a certain period of time, usually until the child graduates or reaches a certain age. For example, Michigan law requires parents to continue paying child support until the child turns 19-1/2, but only if the child is still living full time with the custodial parent while attending high school full time, and the child has a reasonable expectation of graduating. (Mich. Comp. Laws § 552.605b(2) (2023).)
Depending on the state, child support may continue beyond the age of majority (and high school graduation) in certain other situations, such as when:
Depending on where you live, you might have to submit a formal request to have the court issue an order ending your child support obligation. If you just assume that you don't have to pay anymore, you could end up owing back support ("arrears"). It's important that you make this request as soon as possible, especially if your support payments are being withheld from your wages.
If a judge terminates your parental rights through a court hearing, that will end your support obligation along with your rights. So in most cases, you will no longer have to pay child support, whether you consented to the termination to allow another person to adopt your child, or a judge terminated parental rights after finding you guilty of abuse or neglect. If you owe back support, however, you'll still be responsible for paying those arrears unless the judge grants you a waiver.
Yes. Your duty to pay child support is separate from any rights you have to visitation or parenting time. Once a court has issued a child support order, you must obey it even if the other parent isn't complying with the custody orders. Otherwise, you risk being subject to any of a number of child support enforcement actions—including having your tax refunds or other assets seized, losing your driver's or professional license, paying fines, or even going to jail.
If the other parent is withholding visitation or parenting time, you should file a motion (written request) to ask the court to enforce the custody orders.
In most cases, stepparents don't have to support their stepchildren financially unless they've adopted the children. However, some states do make stepparents responsible for providing support for their stepchildren, at least in some situations. In Missouri, all stepparents must support their stepchildren to the same extent as natural or adoptive parents, as long as they're living in the same home. (Mo. Rev. Stat. § 453.400 (2023).)
In a few other states, stepparents have a duty to support their stepchildren only if the parents can't do so. In Hawaii, for example, stepparents who living with their stepchildren and acting as their parents have a duty to support them if the legal parents have deserted the children or aren't able to support them. (Haw. Rev. Stat. § 577-4 (2023).)
Also, most states exclude a stepparent's income in the child support calculation. But in some states, judges may consider the income of a parent's new spouse when determining how much income that parent has available to pay child support. For instance, if the new spouse (the child's stepparent) covers all of the parent's monthly expenses and costs, the judge may (if the law allows it) decide that the parent has more available income and therefore can pay more in child support.