Child Support Payment FAQ

Take a look at some frequently asked questions about child support.

By , Retired Judge

Who Has to Pay Child Support?

Both parents are responsible for supporting their child. States use legislatively enacted child support guidelines to decide how much child support each parent is liable for. Normally, noncustodial parents (the ones the child doesn't primarily live with) will pay their share of child support to the custodial parents.

How Is Child Support Determined?

Using the child support guidelines, support is primarily based on parental income. But the definition of parental income can vary on a state-by-state basis. For example, some states may look at both parents' income, while others may only take the noncustodial parent's income into account. In addition to parental income, there are several other items that can factor into calculating child support figures.

How Often Is Child Support Paid?

That all depends on what the child support order provides. It's fairly standard for courts to order support to be paid monthly, but you may find situations where the payments are weekly, bi-weekly, or even bi-monthly. Parents can certainly ask the court to approve a particular schedule, but it's up to the judge to determine whether the requested schedule is acceptable.

Are There Different Methods of Paying Child Support?

Payment of child support is coordinated by and through a designated agency in each state. The default method of payment 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 support recipient. The reason for this is to avoid problems that frequently arose when payments were made directly between parents. A centralized system was considered more efficient for all concerned.

In situations where income withholding isn't possible or appropriate, states normally provide a variety of other methods for making payments to the relevant state agency. These may include sending or dropping off a check or money order, or utilizing credit or debit card payment services approved by the state.

Is a Stepparent Obligated to Financially Support a Stepchild?

In most cases, no. And when using the child support guidelines, a stepparent's income isn't typically included in the child support calculation.

While most states exclude a stepparent's income for child support purposes, some courts will consider it when determining how much income a parent has available for support. For example, if the new spouse (stepparent) covers all of the parent's monthly expenses and costs, then a court may determine that the parent has more income available for child support, and could increase the monthly obligation.

Be aware that not all states believe that a stepparent shouldn't contribute. In fact, a few states have created laws that require a stepparent to support children if the parents can't. For example, in Delaware, in cases where the parents are unable to provide for their minor child's minimum needs, a stepparent will be under a duty to provide for those needs, as long as that stepparent continues in the relationship with the child's parent, and the child lives with the stepparent. (Del. Code Ann. Title 13 - §501(b).)

Do You Have to Pay Child Support If Your Ex Keeps Your Kids Away From You?

Yes. It's important to remember that the obligation to pay child support is a separate issue from custody and parenting time (visitation), and one isn't dependent on the other. Once a child support order is in place, you must abide by it or risk penalties from the court, like fines, loss of driver's or professional licenses, or even jail time.

If the other parent is refusing to adhere to the custody or visitation order, you should file a motion (written request) for relief with the court.

How Long Are You Obligated to Pay Child Support?

It's no surprise that most parents feel an obligation to always support their children, even as adults. Parental guilt aside, the law only requires parents to financially provide for their children until the child is emancipated. In many cases, emancipation occurs when the child reaches the age of majority, which is 18 in most states. Sometimes children under the age of majority—usually between 16 and 18—may be emancipated by a court. You'd be apt to see this if the child is financially self-sufficient, or married, or in the military.

Some states require you to continue supporting your child through high school. For example, Michigan law requires parents to continue paying child support until the child reaches 19 1/2, but only if the child is still living full-time with the custodial parent while attending high school, and the child has a reasonable expectation of graduating. (Mich. Comp. Laws §552.605b (2).) And there are other states which don't consider a child emancipated if the child is pursuing post-secondary education, such as a trade school or college.

You don't have to financially support your children if the court terminates your parental rights through a court hearing. Whether you consent to the termination to allow another person to adopt your child, or if the court finds you guilty of abuse or neglect, in most cases your responsibility to pay for the child will end. It's important to understand that if you've accrued past-due child support (arrearages) with the state, you'll still be responsible for payment of any money owed (unless the court grants you a waiver.)

Note that states may require you to formally ask the court to issue an order ending your child support obligations. If you just assume you don't have to pay anymore, you could end up racking up arrearages. It's important that you make this request as soon as possible, especially if your support payments are being withheld from your wages.

Do Fathers Have the Same Rights to Child Support as Mothers?

Yes. If you're a father and have custodial rights for your children, you have the right to request support from the other parent. Child support doesn't discriminate between genders. If you're raising children with a same-sex spouse, the court will use the same formula to determine child support as with opposite-sex couples.

Is a Father Who Never Married the Mother Still Required to Pay Child Support?

Yes. The law requires both parents to support their children, whether they were married to one another or not.

However, before a court orders child support, the judge must first determine that you're the biological parent of the child. Many unmarried fathers acknowledge paternity at the hospital by voluntarily signing a declaration of paternity. Others are found to be a biological parent after a paternity suit, which is where one parent (or the state) files a lawsuit, and the purported father participates in a genetic test.

If you receive court paperwork that lists you as a purported father, don't ignore it. If you miss a critical deadline, the court may enter a default judgment against you. A default judgment could mean that you're on the hook for child support, even if you're not the biological parent.

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