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Child Support: What Parents Need to Know

Child support is a complicated process. Here's everything parents confronted with it should know.

Children require the financial support of their parents. This is, of course, a given when married parents live together and support their children together. When parents get divorced, however, things change. During a divorce, whether by a written separation agreement, court order, or other means, a custody arrangement is reached. Most commonly, it defines one spouse as the “primary” caregiver with whom the child or children live(s) most of the time. Because the parent with custody is responsible for the daily expense of the child, the other parent must also help with those expenses — or pay child support.

Child support is so complicated in large part because most of one’s life gets wrapped up in consideration of it. How is one person defined as the primary parent? Are the family courts biased against fathers? How do you handle late payments? Child support is emotionally daunting and difficult to talk about, and it brings with it an enormous amount of interpersonal stress. But it’s important to understand. We talked to experts about the ins and outs of child support to demystify the process a little bit. So what, exactly, is child support? How is it determined? How is it calculated? Here’s what to know.

What Is Child Support?

Child support is the term for the payments a noncustodial, divorced parent is required to make to support their child or children. For a more precise definition, here’s how attorney and author of the new book 20 Great Tips for a Successful Divorce Tanya Helfand defines child support. Child support, she says, is “typically a monetary payment from one parent to the primary caretaker of the child, typically the other parent, to cover the financial needs of the child, including but not limited to housing, food, clothing, transportation, entertainment, and health care.”

The parent called upon to pay that support is legally known as the ‘obligor,’ while the caretaker who is receiving that payment is regarded as the ‘obligee.’ It’s also worth noting that while the amount due and the conditions for child support are governed by state law, and vary as a result, the court order will generally not result in the obligor being given physical custody as a result.

How Is Child Support Determined?

While one can certainly “file” for child support, in the traditional sense of the word, it is generally a process that’s organic and necessary to divorce proceedings. Child support is ordered by a court, the Child Support Enforcement Agency (CSEA), or those deliberating. “During divorce proceedings,” says Luke Haller of Danielson Law Firm, “child support is usually set by the court at that time and included in the divorce decree.”

It also varies by state. For instance, in Arkansas, where Danielson Law Firm is based, the state requires that the parents “legally establish the paternity of the child” before proceeding with the process of setting child support. The theory being that a father should not pay support for a child that has not legally been determined to be his,” says Haller. Generally, Haller adds, a paternity action will order support to be paid to the custodial parent, much like a divorce decree.”

However, a couple’s financial information — whether divorced or just separated — can be submitted to the court to formally apply for a calculation of child support.

How Is Child Support Calculated?

The process by which child support is determined varies state-to-state as well, but it’s generally based on a few common factors. “In family law cases, it may feel as if the deck is stacked against fathers,” says Galit Moskowitz of Moskowitz Law Group. “The amount of child support is determined by the number of children a person is responsible for, the child’s needs, net income of the non-custodial parent, cost of living for the custodial parent, and standard of living that the child would have had if the parents had not divorced.”

These agreed-upon calculations have their limits, however. “There is a calculation program available to lawyers and the court to calculate child support pursuant to the guidelines,” says Helfand. For instance, the guidelines max out in New Jersey at a combined net income of $187,200. “When parents are over guidelines,” she says, “we look at the specific needs of the child and budget.”

How Is Child Support Calculated When Parents Have Joint Custody?

The assignment of child support is certainly a horse of a different color when it comes to parents with joint custody of a child or children. Child support may not be ordered at all if the parents each spend the same amount of time with their child. If the parents have joint custody, but one spends more time with their child than the other, then child support may be ordered to a commensurate degree. Still, the kind of custody we’re talking about has to be taken into consideration when ordering child support.

“Physical custody and the number of overnights a child spends with a parent impact child support,” says Helfand. “Legal custody, the right to make decisions regarding health, education, and welfare, is not part of child support calculations. People should always try to agree upon custody based on the best interests and well-being of the child, not on how much child support is.”

It is of utmost importance, she insists, that parents avoid these painful fights over the amount of child support that is to be paid, as custody battles are already extremely painful and emotionally harmful to children.

Can a Child Support Court Order Be Changed?

The short answer is yes, but this comes with several caveats. “To obtain a change in child support,” says Moskowitz, “you have to show a change in circumstances, an increase or decrease in salary, that a special need for the child has arisen, or the responsible party’s living conditions have changed.” Other factors could be the loss of a job, a change in custody, or something like college attendance that significantly alters the child’s circumstances as well as your own.

In any case, child support is still a calculation based on income, and as long as income is a deciding factor, child support can be adjusted. That should not cause you enter into this situation any more lightly, however. You must always remember that it is not a responsibility that is there to be haggled over, nor is it a punishment that is being inflicted. It’s about your child, and their well-being will be the only significant collateral damage if the issue of child support isn’t addressed with respect, open-mindedness, and humility.