What is child support and how does it work? Find out how states assign child support to non-custodial parents, and how you can calculate what you might owe.
Child support can be one of the most contentious elements in a co-parenting relationship. Nearly 6.5 million custodial parents were awarded some amount of child support, with the average annual amount owed close to $5,700 a year or $475 per month.
In 1975, the U.S. government established the Child Support Enforcement (CSE) program, which operates as a joint federal-state program for collecting and distributing child support to custodial parents. In 2013, over $22 billion in support was paid to parents with children under the age of 21.
Whether you’re divorced, separated or never married, if you have a child or children with another person who is not your live-in spouse, you may be required to pay child support. What is the child support system all about in the United States and why is it such a common part of family life for American parents? Perhaps most importantly, how does the system work in each state? Find out answers to these questions below.
What Is Child Support?
Child support is a legal mechanism that exists in each state to make sure children have the financial resources they need to thrive-. It takes the form of an order of the court that has the force of law in the state where it’s issued. A typical order of support cites specific amounts to be paid and the schedule for payment. Some orders also include directions for how to pay child support, such as specifying payment by cashier’s check or payroll deduction.
Who Pays Child Support?
According to the U.S. Census, in 2013, 83% of custodial parents were mothers, which means child support was paid by fathers in those cases.
In most cases, the parent who is ordered to pay support is either not a custodial parent or they share partial custody with the children’s primary caregiver. As a rule, fathers who pay support have either voluntarily acknowledged paternity, legally adopted a child or have been confirmed as a parent by a paternity test. Around 17% of support payers are mothers, whose relationship with a child is generally not in doubt.
Who Gets Child Support?
Child support payments generally take the form of a monthly check paid to the parent or caregiver who has primary custody of the children. In about half of child support cases, these payments go directly from the non-custodial parent to the caregiver, while the other half of payments go through the state CSE program. In this arrangement, non-custodial parents pay support directly to the agency, which then distributes funds to the children’s caregivers.
Why It Works This Way
In cases where support is not in dispute, a simple party-to-party payment is usually sufficient. In contested cases, or in cases with a history of non-payment, the state prefers to step between the parents and act as a middleman for processing payments. In this way, the state CSE office can quickly move toward enforcement in the event of late or missing payments.
Payment through the state agency can also work to the advantage of the parent who pays child support. In a minority of cases, a payment can be lost or not properly accounted for. In other cases, especially those that are a part of a very contentious divorce, one party may falsely claim the other party is in arrears. By sending support payments directly to the CSE agency, the parent paying support can be confident that each payment is accurately recorded and credited.
What Can Child Support Be Used For?
The law that covers appropriate uses for child support money can be complicated and varies somewhat from state to state. As a rule, it is relatively safe to assume that child support funds can be spent on virtually anything that money from other sources would be spent on.
Though child support is intended to help care for children, the courts in every state generally interpret this requirement as broadly as possible. While some non-custodial parents complain to the family court that they fear their payments are being used for non-support costs, it is extremely rare for a court to step in and interfere with the ways a receiving parent chooses to spend support money.
Calculating Child Support
The amount of child support you owe is generally calculated using a formula that’s the same for almost everyone in your state. The exact formula varies from state to state, and many states’ courts share a method for determining appropriate support amounts. The major models are:
States vary somewhat in the details of how enforcement is conducted. If you have a child support case of your own, whether you are paying or receiving support payments, it is always important to consult with a local attorney who specializes in family law.
Child Support in Every State
Below is a summary of how child support works in each state.
Alabama courts use a statewide Child Support Guideline as a starting point for calculating support amounts. Family courts are free to deviate from the guidelines if they find grounds to do so. Enforcement is in the hands of the Department of Human Resources.
Alaska assigns support as a flat percentage of income. Support payments generally continue until the supported child reaches the age of 18, unless they are still enrolled in high school, in which case support terminates at 19. Alaska child support orders cannot compel a parent to pay for college tuition.
Arizona uses the Income Shares model as a guideline. Courts use a parent’s gross income to calculate support amounts. Child support terminates when a child reaches age 18 or graduates from high school. Parents cannot be required to pay for post-majority college tuition in Arizona.
Arkansas bases support awards on the net income of the supporting parent’s income, using the Varying Percentage model. Support terminates when the child either turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever comes first. Parents are not required to pay college tuition.
California links child support to custody and visitation arrangements. Support can be assigned based on the percentage of time a child spends with each parent, as well as how much each parent contributes to overall support. Family courts have the ability to reduce child support amounts if the primary custodial parent has thwarted the other parent’s access to the child. The baseline for calculating support amounts is the Income Shares model, modified for length of visitation between parents.
Colorado courts use the Income Shares model that is based on both parents’ gross income. Support comes to an end when the child either graduates from high school or turns 18, whichever comes first. Parents are not required to pay for college tuition.
Connecticut uses the Income Shares model with both parents’ net income. Support terminates at age 18.
Delaware calculates child support using the Melson Formula, basing its numbers on both parents’ net income. Courts in Delaware are free to deviate from this model if they find the results “unjust or inappropriate” for any reason.
District of Columbia
Child support in the District of Columbia is calculated on a hybrid model that combines Income Shares with a flat-percentage model. Courts in the District use parents’ gross income as a baseline, and support awards include a self-support reserve for both parents. Children are entitled to support until the age of 21.
Florida uses the Income Shares model for calculating support amounts, based on the parents’ net incomes. Courts in Florida usually include requirements for health insurance and childcare with the monthly cash award, as well as continuing education requirements for private school, if applicable. Support generally terminates when the child reaches age 18 or 19, if they are still enrolled in high school at that time.
Georgia courts have little discretion when awarding child support. State law sets the default configuration as a flat percentage of income, with some deviation permitted for extra expenses as needed. Georgia uses parents’ gross income to calculate support amounts.
Hawaii uses the Melson formula to calculate support from net income. The court often makes allowances for the total number of people in the household.
Idaho assigns support using the Income Shares model. Child support in Idaho takes priority over almost any other kind of debt, including credit cards, mortgages and the needs of the parents.
Illinois’ state legislature has set child support guidelines for courts to follow. Amounts are set as a flat percentage based on the net income of the parents.
Indiana uses an Income Shares model based on the parents’ gross income. Rules for assigning support are laid out in the state’s Rules of Court. Additional support payments may be assigned to cover children’s education expenses, including college expenses.
Iowa has a common law system for assigning child support. Payment models have been developed by court rules over the years, and they amount to a modified Income Shares model.
Kansas uses Income Shares to assign support. Payments can continue until either the child’s 18th birthday or until graduation from high school, whichever comes last.
Kentucky uses a statutory Income Shares model on gross income. Award amounts may include education expenses, including college.
Louisiana state law requires courts to use an Income Shares model based on gross income.
Maine courts use Income Shares based on gross income to assess support.
Maryland uses Income Shares as a model for support, based on parents’ gross income.
Massachusetts support rules have been developed by the state Supreme Judicial Court. The rules are a hybrid model between Income Shares and a flat percentage. Assessments start from the non-custodial parent’s gross income, then adjust for the custodial parent’s income. Support is generally awarded through age 21.
Michigan courts use the Income Shares model based on parents’ net income. The rules for child support in Michigan are set out in the Michigan Friend of Court Child Support Manual.
Minnesota uses net income to calculate a Varying Percentage model. Courts may deviate from the state guidelines in the interest of justice.
Mississippi calculates support for children using a flat percentage of the non-custodial parent’s net income.
Missouri courts use the Income Shares model, based on the parents’ gross income.
Montana Administrative Rules call for courts to use the Melson formula, based on net income.
Nebraska’s Supreme Court uses Income Shares formula to assess support, based on net income.
Nevada bases support awards on a varying percentage of the paying parent’s gross income.
New Hampshire’s legislature has set a support formula by statute. Child support in the state closely follows the Income Shares model based on net income.
New Jersey Court Rules specify an Income Shares model for net income.
New Mexico uses gross income-based Income Shares to assess child support.
New York assigns child support based on the net income of the paying parent, run through the Income Shares model.
North Carolina uses Income Shares based on the paying parent’s gross income to set a support level.
North Dakota courts typically apply a fixed percentage of the paying parent’s income to their child support models.
Ohio support guidelines are a modified Income Shares model based on net income. Children are to be supported until age 18, or until graduation from high school, whichever comes later.
Oklahoma assigns child support until a child reaches the age of 18, graduates from high school or reaches age 20 if still enrolled in school. The state sets support amounts using an Income Shares model.
Oregon calculates support based on a gross-income Income Shares model.
Pennsylvania calculates support amounts using the Income Shares model. The court has an option to extend support orders past the age of 18 if the child has physical or mental disabilities.
Rhode Island assigns support using a modified Income Shares model. If the paying parent is unemployed or works less than full time, the court may assess potential income and use that as a basis for the award amount.
South Carolina courts use an Income Shares model to establish child support.
South Dakota uses the Income Shares model for both parents’ net incomes to determine support.
Tennessee family courts calculate support awards based on the Income Shares model. Support continues until the child’s 18th birthday or completion of high school, whichever occurs later.
Texas state law requires courts to assign support based on a fixed percentage of the paying parent’s net income. Support terminates when the child either reaches 18 or graduates high school, with no provision to continue support into college.
Utah family courts use the Income Shares model for child support, using the parents’ gross income as a baseline. Support may be ordered until age 18 or until high school graduation. In rare cases, Utah courts can order child support through the child’s 21st birthday.
Vermont calculates support using the Income Shares model.
Virginia applies Income Shares to calculating support. Payments generally continue until the child turns 19 or graduates from high school.
Washington applies the Income Shares model to calculating support.
West Virginia guidelines apply the Income Shares model to an adjusted gross income. Support may continue until the child reaches age 20, though the court can also assign college expenses to the non-custodial parent.
Wisconsin uses a fixed percentage of income to calculate child support.
Wyoming child support is determined using the Income Shares model.