It's summer. A woman and a small child hold hands as they walk down a sidewalk.

Child Support Basics for Separating Parents

Last Updated: August 28, 2023

Key Takeaways:

  • Child support is a recurring payment made by one parent to cover essential costs like food, housing, healthcare, and education for a dependent child.
  • The custodial parent receives payments from the parent who spends less time with the child or earns a higher income.
  • Enforcing child support involves contacting local authorities or applying to court for changes.

Parents who separate and share minor children must plan for their kids' future care and support. In addition to custody arrangements, child support payments are a crucial topic in a Separation Agreement.
Although parents aren't together, they are both legally responsible for financially supporting their children. A child's quality of life improves when both parents financially contribute to their health, education, and development.

What is child support?

When parents separate, one parent often pays child support: a recurring payment that helps cover the costs of caring for the dependent child or children.
Child support payments help cover the costs of necessities such as:
  • Transportation
  • Healthcare
  • Housing
  • Clothing
  • School
  • Food
The parent that spends the least amount of time with the kids or that earns a higher income is often the parent who pays support (also known as the obligor or payor). The parent that receives payments (often the custodial parent) is known as the obligee or recipient. The custodial parent has physical custody of their child a majority of the time.
However, keep in mind that authorities review plans with discretion to ensure the best outcome for children.

How does child support work in general?

Each state has different guidelines for calculating child support based on factors such as:
  • The number of children
  • The payor's gross income
  • The custody arrangement
  • Considerations for health care expenses
States may implement these guidelines through court proceedings, or they may have a dedicated government agency that regulates the process.
Research the process for calculating child support in your area. Separating parents who can agree on an amount, payment dates, and length of payments may include their child support plan in their Separation Agreement. In this case, you can speed up the time spent negotiating child support in court or applying for support through a government agency.
However, keep in mind that authorities review plans with discretion to ensure the best outcome for children.

How do I file for child support?

Contact your state child support office to file for child support online, in person, or through a mail-in application. To quicken the application process, be sure to gather as much information as possible about both parents in advance. Child support applications often ask for the following details:
  • Social security and driver's license numbers
  • Parent contact information
  • Employment history
  • Additional contacts' or family members' information
  • Any relevant court orders or police reports
  • Criminal background
  • Attorney information
Separating on Agreeable Terms?
Speed up the process with a Separation Agreement.
A Separation Agreement establishes terms for living apart. It includes separate assets and debts, child custody, and support payments prior to a divorce judgement.

How does custody affect child support?

Your physical custody arrangement (sometimes known as a parenting schedule, parenting time, or residential schedule) affects who pays child support. Notably, this physical custody is different from legal custody, which involves parental decision making for the child's well-being. Depending on your physical custody arrangement, a parent may or may not need to pay child support.
For instance, if a child mainly resides with Parent A and only visits Parent B occasionally, Parent A has sole custody. In this case, Parent A incurs most of the costs of daily living and Parent B will likely pay child support.
If a child spends a fairly equal amount of time with each parent, child support may not be necessary. For example, the child might alternate between parents on a weekly basis. In this case, the parents have shared physical custody and likely contribute equally to the child's financial care.
Keep in mind that physical custody is just one factor in determining child support payments. Income and special expenses are other factors to consider.

How much is child support?

Child support does not have a set dollar amount. Parents and courts may calculate child support based on income and other factors.
The Income Shares Model is the most common child support model in the US and centers around the idea that both parents pool their incomes for the benefit of the whole family. Using this model, you calculate child support by determining each person's percentage of the combined income.Income Shares Model
For instance, suppose Parent A earns $2000/month and Parent B earns $4000/month. Their total income is $6000/month. Let's also imagine their child care costs $500/month.
Because Parent A contributes one third (33.33%) to the total monthly income, Parent A would also contribute the same share to child care expenses (about $166.66). On the other hand, because Parent B contributes two thirds (66.66%) to the total income, they should pay about $333.33 in child support.
Different states may use variations of the Income Shares Model. They might also apply predetermined formulas that account for the needs of the parents as well as the children.

Is child support taxable or tax-deductible?

No, the receiver of child support should not include these payments as taxable income on their tax return. Likewise, the payor cannot deduct these expenses from their tax return.

When does child support end?

Typically, child support payments end once the child reaches the legal age of majority. Although, the obligation to continue paying support may extend into the child's adult life as well. For example, an adult child may remain dependent on their parents because of an illness or disability. In these cases, parents may continue with their existing arrangements or agree to pay a different amount of support once the child reaches adulthood.
If the parents agree, the payor may be able to end child support payments early. Stopping payments early might be easier if the parents created their child support plan through a Separation AgreementSEPAGR
Families have unique needs, so the end of child support payments differs depending on your situation and how your child support plan came into place.

How do I enforce child support payments?

When the payor fails to make the appropriate payments, they owe child support arrears. A parent who needs to enforce payments should contact their local enforcement agency (such as the attorney general's office or social services). Generally, this parent pays a registration fee, typically around $25, for enforcement services.
Enforcement programs operate at the state level, but federal legislation imposes certain conditions and provides partial funding. For instance, if a family uses public assistance such as welfare or food stamps, the state government must collect child support payments to offset these costs. Otherwise, payments go directly to the custodial parent. When a parent is in arrears, states have the authority to issue orders that withhold their income from wages or benefits.

How do I get child support arrears dismissed?

You must make a court motion to dismiss or modify child support arrears. If not, courts typically don't dismiss arrears retroactively. The person seeking dismissal of arrears may do so when:
  • They believe the arrangement is unfair
  • The payor or receiver has a significant change in income
  • The needs of the payor, receiver, or child change substantially
Contact a family lawyer for more information on dismissing child support arrears.