In every state, parents are required to support their children, whether or not the parents were married when the child was born. The federal Child Support Enforcement Act (42 U.S.C. § 651) requires every state to adopt a formula setting a minimum amount of child support depending on the financial resources of the parents, the needs of the children, and other factors, such as the amount of time the child spends with each parent. The effect of this law is that child support—or at least a minimum amount of child support—is set more or less automatically by plugging parents' income and expense information into a computer program. The law has resulted in higher child support awards than in the past, and has decreased litigation, because there's less to fight about.
For information on child support rules and calculators in your state, see the State Links page of the website of the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement.
If the person you live with is not your children's parent, then that person has no obligation to support your children. The amount of child support your ex-spouse is ordered to pay usually isn't affected by the fact that you live with someone else. However, if your new partner provides shelter or buys food, clothing, or other items for you, your ex-spouse may petition the court to reduce his or her child support obligation. It will be your ex-spouse's responsibility to show that your new partner pays many of the children's expenses, freeing up most of your income. If your ex-spouse can prove this, a court may rule that you have more income available to support your children, and reduce your child support.
In most states, judges have at least some discretion to deviate from the support formula if the amount is unjust or inappropriate, based on factors such as the financial resources of the custodial parent and child-related expenses.
If you receive child support and live with your partner or new spouse, consider signing an agreement to keep all of your earnings and property separate. That way, you stand a better chance of not losing your support payments. Courts in some states have held that joint income could not be considered in making a child support award when the custodial parent and new partner had such an agreement.
If you have custody of your children and live with someone else, your ex-spouse is still required to support the children. Your ex may be angry at your new living arrangement and tempted to try to get out of paying by quitting his or her job or refusing to look for work. However, the court will probably structure payments based on the other parent's ability, not inclination, to work. Refusing to support your children when you have the ability to do so is a crime in all states.
States are buckling down in collecting child support. People who repeatedly fail to take their child support obligations seriously may spend a short time behind bars and may be denied professional licenses or passports.All states have laws to grab the wages of a parent who falls behind in child support. A wage attachment means that an amount to cover the child support is taken out of a paycheck and paid directly to the custodial parent or a government agency. With the help of the federal government, states are cooperating to collect child support from parents who move to another part of the country. In short, paying child support is not only morally good, but it can also keep you out of jail.
Child support may only be changed by court approval following a formal request for modification of child support. If you're a noncustodial parent and you live with someone—perhaps even support that person and his or her children—will the amount of child support you pay be reduced? Because you have no legal duty to support your new partner and new partner's children, a judge won't reduce your support obligation. Your primary duty is to your own children, not your friend's. At the same time, if your living expenses are reduced because you share them with another person, a judge may deviate from the child support formula because a greater amount of your income has been freed up.
For useful articles on child support and related legal issues, see the Child Support, Child Custody & Visitation section of the Divorce and Family Law area of the Nolo website.