After a divorce, both parents are financially responsible for the support of their child (or children,) regardless of who has custody. In order to meet their financial obligations, most non-custodial parents pay some form of child support. Child support is a court-ordered payment made to the custodial parent for the care of a child (or children) of divorced or permanently separated parents. It can be paid on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis-depending on what you and your spouse, or the court, decides.
Although child support is mandated by the court and there are strict penalties for not paying, some parents still do not meet this obligation. In fact, about 50% of all parents who are required to pay child support have made late payments, made partial payments, or attempted to avoid paying altogether.
If you are required to pay child support, you should recognize that this support is not a reward or bonus for your ex-spouse, but instead is essential to the well being of your child. Although you may have divorced a spouse, you cannot divorce your child, and your child does not deserve to suffer because of the separation. Moreover, paying support does not mean you have satisfied all your responsibilities to your child. Custodial parents have the right to receive help with unexpected expenses such as medical or dental treatment, college, and other costs that may not have been included in the original agreement.
If you are a custodial parent, there are steps you can take to ensure that you get the support due to you and to collect from an ex-spouse who refuses to pay.
The Child Support Agreement
Generally, it is best if you and your ex-spouse can agree on child support between yourselves rather than relying on the court to decide. However, you still need the help of a lawyer to protect your interests, to help you negotiate, to ensure that the agreement is fair and legally binding, and to write up the agreement. If you cannot agree on the terms of support, then your lawyer can help you present your case to the court.
Before you begin to negotiate for support, you should take stock of all the expenses associated with your child’s upbringing. Make a list of all your child’s current needs, including medical and dental care, educational costs, food, shelter, and clothing. Also list your child’s activities and the costs associated with them, and make a list of projected expenses for the future, including college, orthodontic work, and the like.
The exact amount of child support will be determined by a number of factors: the needs of the child, the income of the parents, the age of the child, the standard of living to which he or she is accustomed, and the support schedule of the county in which the parties are divorcing. The parents’ income is the net pay after compulsory deductions (such as state and federal taxes, FICA and Social Security.) It does not include voluntary deductions, so you cannot elect to have more money taken out of your paycheck in order to reduce your income and support obligation. Sometimes the courts will determine an amount of support based on the parent’s ability to pay rather than the actual net income. This would prevent someone from refusing to work in order to avoid paying support.
Each county has a support schedule that lists recommended support amounts based on net incomes. Some judges will follow this schedule by the letter, while others will use it as a guide. If you have special circumstances that are not reflected by the support schedule, you should ask that these circumstances be taken into consideration.
You should try to make sure that the support agreement covers unexpected future costs. However, you should also expect that no agreement, however thorough, can anticipate every future need of the child, and parents should be prepared occasionally to share the costs for unanticipated expenses that are not spelled out in the agreement.
Often the support agreement will require one parent to maintain health insurance for the child. Sometimes the support agreement will also require parents to have life insurance so that the child will be cared for in case of a parent’s death. In any case, whether you are required to have it or not, you should consider purchasing this protection for your child.
Termination of Child Support
Non-custodial parents are required to make support payments until the child has reached emancipation or has died. A child is emancipated once he or she marries, becomes financially independent, joins the military, or reaches an appropriate age. This age may correspond to the legal age of adulthood (usually 18 or 21) but is not necessarily the same. For example, your agreement might dictate that support will end once the child has finished high school, college, or some other training.
The Use of Child Support Money
Child support money is to be used at the discretion of the custodial parent. If you feel that your ex-spouse is not using child support funds responsibly, you have very little recourse with the court. The exception would be cases where a child appears to be neglected, or his or her basic needs are not being met.
Getting the Support that You Deserve
There are a few steps you can take to make sure you receive the support due to you. First, do not rely on verbal agreements, and do not accept cash payments. Keep careful records of all your expenses and bring all the necessary information to court before a support order is issued.
If you feel that your spouse may attempt to avoid paying, you should keep in touch with your state’s child support enforcement agency. Keep a record of all your conversations with the agency.
Finally, do not attempt to interfere with your child’s relationship with your ex-spouse, and do not prevent your spouse from visiting the child. Although a lack of visitation is not a reason to stop paying support, in some extreme cases courts have terminated the child support order when custodial parents refused to cooperate with visitation.
The Importance of Paying Regularly
If you are required to pay child support, it is in your best interest (and your child’s) to do this regularly and on time. A lack of visitation is not an excuse for not paying. If your ex-spouse refuses to allow visitation, you can contact your lawyer and seek help from the court, but you must continue to pay. There are practically no legal excuses for not paying, and the consequences are very serious. They include a contempt of court finding, suspension of professional licenses, bad credit, withholding of IRS refunds, garnishing of wages, criminal charges, penalties, and liens on your property. If you are consistently late or have failed to pay, you may be required to pay a security deposit equal to as much as one year’s support.
If you have direct deposit from your employer, you may be able to deposit a portion of your check into your spouse’s account. This saves you the hassle of writing and mailing a check.
Collecting from Delinquent Parents
If you are entitled to support payments and your spouse is more than 30 days behind, you should take action to collect the support that is due to you. You can contact the family law court to begin contempt proceedings. Your state’s enforcement agency can help you to locate an ex-spouse who is not paying and to take the necessary steps to garnish his or her wages.
If your ex-spouse is delinquent, do not delay too long in reporting it. In some cases, a prolonged delay (of more than a year) has been considered a waiver of the right to support.
Child Support and Taxation
Child support is not taxable nor is it a tax deduction for the payer. It is not possible for both parents to claim a child as a dependent on their taxes. Usually the custodial parent will claim the child, but you and your ex can negotiate how you want to handle this, or even take turns from year to year.
Changes to Your Agreement
If you find that your needs or circumstances have changed, you can go back to court to modify your support agreement. This can be expensive, however, and you should be prepared to pay as much as $1,000 or more to do this.