There are more than 13 million divorced parents with sole custody of their minor children in America. Federal legislation and uniform state laws exist to make enforcement and collection of child support easier for America’s single parents. Every state uses its own guidelines for establishing child support and each has various methods to set support amounts and recover support when it is overdue.
It is important to consult with an experienced family law attorney if you need help with a child support related issue. An attorney with experience in the area of child support will help you understand the laws in your state and the rules for child support collection and enforcement that apply to your particular situation, whether you are ending a marriage or are already divorced, have questions about paternity or are the parent paying support.
Child Support Basics
Biological parents owe their children a legal duty of financial support until the child reaches “the age of majority” (depending on state law, 18 or 21) or becomes self-supporting. When only one parent has primary custody of the child, the other parent’s obligation for financial support is usually fulfilled through the payment of child support. Support is owed whether the child lives with their other parent or a third party, and whether or not the person with whom the child lives can afford to support the child on their own. Depending on the state, support may be owed even if the parents share custody.
Each state has adopted its own set of guidelines for determining child support. While individual guidelines differ, most arrive at the amount of support owed through a consideration of the needs of the child and the income of the paying parent. Family courts use the guidelines to establish the amount of support required and presume the amount the guidelines indicate is correct unless persuasive contrary evidence exists.
Getting and Enforcing Child Support Orders
Child support generally starts with an order for support from a state family court. The order may occur in a temporary or final divorce proceeding, or following establishment of paternity, after a request for support is received from an unmarried custodial parent. If the parties do not agree on an amount for support, the court will use the state’s guidelines to set one.
Payments are due at specific times each month and may be directly withheld from the paying parent’s wages. In most states, the paying parent may be able to make their payments to a “child support registry”. The registry forwards the payment to the custodial parent and keeps track of payments that are made.
When child support is owed but not paid, a variety of measures exist to collect past due amounts and protect against future non-payments. Most states have laws that allow a family court judge to suspend professional or business licenses, take away driver’s and recreational licenses, require payment of future owed sums in advance or place non-paying parents in jail.
All states have also created offices of Child Support Enforcement. These federally supported state agencies help locate responsible parents and create and enforce support orders. There are also federal laws that criminalize non-payment of child support when the paying parent lives in a different state.
Changing Child Support Orders
Both the parent receiving child support and the parent paying child support may request changes in child support orders. Some states undertake regular review of existing orders. Others allow review upon parental requests. Parents receiving support may have the amount increased upon a showing that the paying parent’s income has increased, especially if the current amount of ordered support does not meet the child’s needs. Support may also be increased because of a child’s specific needs for things like tutoring, medical treatment or therapy.
Paying parents may be able to decrease the amount of future support payments if they face the loss of a job, a reduction in income or when the custodial parent’s income increases. Federal law prohibits states from forgiving past due child support payments. Courts are reluctant to reduce child support awards and paying parents may have an earning capacity imputed to them whether or not their actual earnings reflect that amount.
Parents seeking child support can benefit greatly from the involvement of an experienced family law attorney. Attorneys who understand a state’s child support laws help both obtain and enforce child support orders. Family law attorneys can also represent either parent in a support modification proceeding or in proceedings to establish or disprove paternity. Both parents and children benefit when the appropriate amount of support is ordered and paid on behalf of the child who needs it.
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