The divorce rate in the United States may have dropped over the past few years, but it still hovers around 45 percent. Which means there’s a sizable fraternity of single dads who are paying court-ordered child support and co-parenting with someone they don’t live with anymore. Some dads may question whether there’s a way to get out of paying child support, but the best strategy is to be organized, protect your interests, and do what’s best for your kids. So what do you most need to know about how to pay child support? And what should you look for in a child support lawyer?
The good news is that the importance of dads is increasingly acknowledged, particularly in broken marriages. But that doesn’t mean the stress, uncertainty, and rancor around divorce have evaporated. It’s all still there, and conflict is often centered on money. “The key thing to realize is that every choice you make should be in your child’s best interest, not yours,” says Tom Swett, a Colorado family law attorney with over 17 years of experience. “It’s a hard thing to do, but you must leave your emotions out of your child-support agreement.”
Even after an agreement has been reached, dealing with money will of course continue to be an emotional and regular challenge for divorced parents. Here are the seven essential things dads should keep in mind when it comes to paying child support.
Get an Attorney
The single most important item dads need in a divorce that involves children is an attorney. They will make sure your financial interests are safeguarded, access to your children is adequate, and most important, that their client is protected. “Google did not go to law school, nor did your buddy in the office,” says Swett. “Find an attorney in your state that has experience dealing with divorce and child support issues.”
Keep the Kids Out of It
The trauma of divorce is already a serious issue for children in broken marriages. Dads shouldn’t add to it by dragging them into financial fights with their ex. “If you let the money take over the entire divorce, it can pollute everything and possibly spill over into your relationship with your kids,” says Swett. “Is saving $100 a month, or always trashing Mommy about her spending worth not seeing your kids, or having a broken relationship with them?”
Dads must keep child support angst out of their kid’s life. If a child does ask how much a dad is paying, the appropriate response is that it’s between their parents. Additionally, it’s dangerous for a dad to blame an ex-spouse for the inability to pay for fun activities. Better to just make other plans, like a movie night at home. More than fun, children need as much stability as possible.
Always Pay Child Support On Time
This is a non-negotiable, according to Swett. “I see so many men who allow themselves to fall behind and then struggle mightily to catch up,” he says. The penalties for falling behind can be severe — garnished checks, forfeited tax returns, loss of drivers license and jail time. But one of the biggest penalties is the animosity it can create between ex-partners. Simple tasks like dropping the kids off or coordinating schedules can rapidly devolve when someone feels slighted.
If money is tight, dads should pay as much as they can on time. Side handshake deals for later payment are ill-advised. Instead, dads should go to the court and ask for help. If they’ve shown good faith through on-time payments, odds are the court will be lenient, says Swett.
Keep Records of Everything
Each month, payment should be noted in financial records, which makes cash payments verboten. Dads should keep receipts or receipt images of all expenses, including clothing and doctor’s visits. The key rule to remember is that if it is an expense for a child, keep records of it. These expenses will probably matter if a dad is ever in the position of renegotiating child support.
“Remember, just because you spent a certain amount on clothes or such, that does not mean the other party has to spend the same amount,” says Swett. “It depends on your parenting agreement, but if you have no records, then you will never have any legal proof of what you have spent.”
Create a Framework to Deal With Disputes
Regardless of the effort toward an amicable separation, issues are going to arise. That’s where having a clear parenting agreement is crucial. “You will save yourself time, money, and heartache if you hammer out a series of steps to take if there are issues,” says Swett. “It should start with some easy steps and graduate to a mediator before ending back in court.”
Swett recommends exchanging bills for outstanding expenses monthly to reconcile them. Allowing each parent the ability to decline payment for larger expenses (vacations, camps, and such) before they happen also is huge. The key is to allow each side the chance to voice complaints before resentments build up.
The Payer Is Not in Charge
Sending money to an ex can be frustrating. Even more so when co-parents can’t agree on how the funds are being used. It’s a common complaint among divorced fathers. But, once a check is sent over, dads have very little say over where the money goes. It’s best to recognize this while remembering that child support is defined as an ongoing, periodic payment made by a parent for the financial benefit of a child. That means it could be used to pay rent, to buy a plane ticket, or to chip away at debt. The parent that receives it decides what they think it should be spent on.
If a dad doesn’t agree with where the money is being spent, they can document their issues (email, letters, and notes) and discuss them with their lawyer. Never threaten to withhold payment for any reason. That’s illegal and guaranteed to end badly.
Always Keep the Other Party Informed
Withholding financial information from each other often leads to issues that are much larger than they need to be. Part of the challenge of co-parenting is creating, and keeping, some level of trust. That quickly evaporates when one party feels like they have been lied to.
“Be proactive. If you get a raise or a bonus tell the other parent,” says Swett. “They will find out soon enough from your children.” Plus, by keeping finances above the table, dads mitigate the need to pay back child support if secret income or funds are revealed in court.
The best advice Swett offers is to set up an annual schedule to exchange all pertinent information — W-2, year-end paycheck subs, stock information, and tax returns. “Realize that most child support arrangements are based off of gross, not net pay,” says Swett.