Child Support: An Overview

Monday, March 25, 2013

Article Written By: Katie Farrell, Staff Writer

As a parent, you may be wondering whether you are entitled to receive child support payments from your child's other parent. Following are a few initial considerations regarding parents' rights to receive child support payments.

When married parents divorce or separate, or when only one of the unmarried parents of a child has custody, the court may order the "non-custodial" parent (the parent with whom the child does not live) to pay a certain portion of his or her income as child support. This is not the only scenario in which child support might arise. Less frequently, when neither parent has custody, the court may order them to pay child support to a third party who cares for their child.

No matter what situation gives rise to the need for child support, it might help to think of the legal right to child support as being possessed by a child, for his or her proper care and upbringing, regardless of who actually receives child support payments.

Are You the "Custodial" Parent of a Child?

In order for a parent to get child support, he or she must usually be the "custodial" parent of a child. A "custodial" parent is one who has primary physical custody of a child, meaning that the child, or children, lives primarily with the custodial parent, and that parent is chiefly responsible for day-to-day care of the child. The "custodial" parent can be designated by a court after a divorce and child custody dispute, or can be assumed naturally in single-parent households where only one parent is raising the child while the other parent has made no effort toward seeking custody.

Child Support in Joint Custody Situations

In cases where a child spends equal time living with both parents, they will both be considered "custodial" parents, but one parent may still be required to pay child support to the other. This is especially likely if there is a large disparity in the parents' incomes. For example, if a husband and wife get a divorce and agree to share joint physical custody of their son, the husband would likely be entitled to receive child support from the mother if he was a stay-at-home father during the marriage, while she earned a six-figure salary. Without receiving such financial support, the father would probably not to be able to pay the day-to-day expenses required to properly provide care for the child, even on a half-time basis.

Amount You Can Receive

Each state has legal guidelines that help establish the amount of child support that must be paid to the custodial parent. The specifics of each guideline differ from state to state, but they are all generally based on the parents’ incomes, living expenses, and needs of the children. Often, the guidelines calculate the amount of child support as a percentage of the paying parent’s income that increase with the number of children being supported. If there are good reasons, most states allow some variance from the guidelines.

Child Support Orders

There is a growing misconception that child support should only cover a child’s bare necessities, such as food and clothing. In reality, child support is meant to cover a broad range of expenses including school fees, entertainment, medical expenses, and extracurricular activities.

Child support orders are issued by the family court, which bases the amount of the support on the state child support guidelines. These guidelines establish the amount of support that must be paid, based largely on the non-custodial parent's income and the number of children. The court will also take into account other relevant factors, such as the custodial parent's income and the needs of the children.

The court can deviate from the guidelines if there are significant reasons for doing so. The fact that the custodial parent has a high income does not itself justify deviation from the guidelines, because under the law children have the right to benefit from both parents' incomes. Child support can be increased if there is a change in circumstances justifying the increase, such as an increase in the payer's income or the cost of living, a decrease in the custodial parent's income, or an increase in the child's needs. Similarly, the amount can be reduced if the circumstances justify the reduction.

Contact an Attorney

If you are facing a potential child support issue or dispute, whether due to divorce or as a single parent, a family law lawyer can help by fairly and zealously representing you in a child support proceeding. A family law lawyer will work to obtain the best possible result in the entry of a child support order, enforcement of an existing order, or in establishing or disproving paternity. Contact an experienced attorney today to ensure your legal rights are protected.

Practice Areas: 

Divorce & Family Law