Home Family Law The Essential Guide to Child Support: Calculations, Enforcement, Modifications, Taxes, Insurance, and...

The Essential Guide to Child Support: Calculations, Enforcement, Modifications, Taxes, Insurance, and Consequences of Non-Payment


Child support is crucial for meeting children’s financial needs after parents divorce or separate. However, many details surrounding state guidelines, calculations, enforcing and modifying support orders, health insurance, tax considerations, and repercussions for non-payment remain unclear. This comprehensive guide provides extensive information on all aspects of child support for separated or divorced parents.

Child Support

How Child Support Amounts Are Calculated

Courts determine child support amounts based on state guidelines and formulas that consider parents’ incomes and custody arrangements. The goal is maintaining children’s prior lifestyle.

Basic Child Support Formula

Most states use an “income shares” model calculating support as the approximate percentage of each parent’s income that would have gone to the child if still an intact household.

  • The total child support amount derives from state tables based on the combined parental incomes and number of children.
  • This amount is then pro-rated between the parents based on their individual percentage share of the total income.
  • The percentage of time each parent spends with the child may adjust their support obligation.

Determining Income

“Gross income” includes almost all earnings and compensation amounts used to calculate child support:

  • Wages, salary, commissions, bonuses, overtime
  • Business income, partnerships, dividends, rental income
  • Severance pay, pensions, interest/investment income
  • Social Security, disability, unemployment, workers’ comp
  • Insurance or legal settlements
  • Spousal support received

Allowable Deductions from Income

Courts permit deductions from gross income for certain expenses or obligations, including:

  • Taxes (federal/state income, FICA)
  • Mandated union dues, retirement contributions
  • Medical insurance premiums for parent (not children)
  • Court-ordered spousal or child support for other relationships
  • Childcare expenses for parent’s other dependents
  • Extraordinary medical expenses
  • Additional support for biological children from other relationships living with the parent

Imputed Income

If the court finds a parent is voluntarily underemployed or unemployed, income may be “imputed” based on their earnings potential and skills. This prevents misrepresenting actual income.

Self-Employment Income

Calculating income for self-employed parents or small business owners involves examining tax returns, business records, dividend payments, loan repayments, and lifestyle. Depreciation and other paper losses that reduce taxable income may be added back in.

Spousal Income

Some state formulas consider new spouses’ income as part of total household income. A stepparent’s income generally does not factor into calculations.

Custody Arrangements Child support amounts connect closely to physical custody arrangements.

  • If custody is 50/50, support obligations offset more evenly based on income discrepancies only.
  • The parent with primary physical custody receives support from the noncustodial parent based on their guidelines-specified contribution.
  • Joint physical custody with unequal timesharing may result in the parent with more overnights owing partial support to the other.

Other Factors Affecting Support Amounts

Courts may adjust final support orders based on:

  • Extremely high or low income levels
  • Educational expenses
  • Families with multiple children requiring support
  • Child’s health care costs and insurance premiums
  • Extraordinary expenses related to special needs
  • Parenting time expenditures related to long distances
  • Total financial resources and living situations of both parents

Statutory Limits on Support Amounts

Some states impose statutory caps on the dollar amount of child support based on factors like the paying parent’s income and number of children needing support. However, caps can be exceeded in some cases.

How Support Is Paid

Child support is typically paid through income withholding, direct bank transfers, or state disbursement units. Paying in cash directly to the receiving parent is discouraged.

Income Withholding Order

An income withholding order requires the paying parent’s employer automatically deduct support payments from payroll checks. This is the most common method.

Garnishing Other Income Sources

If the paying parent is self-employed, unemployed, or behind on payments, garnishment of financial accounts, tax refunds, lottery winnings, or other income sources may be used to collect owed support.

Payment Services

Support funds can be automatically transferred from the paying parent’s bank account to the receiving parent’s account using state disbursement units or private services. This avoids direct contact.

Changing Payment Amounts

Most states require that child support be paid in one monthly amount. Biweekly or semi-monthly payments based on monthly amounts may also be arranged. Lump sum payments ordered for arrears or future education costs.

Duration of Child Support Obligation

Child support typically continues until the child reaches 18. However, obligations may extend longer under certain circumstances.

  • If still enrolled in high school full-time, support often continues until graduation or age 19/20.
  • For special needs children who remain dependent past 18, ongoing support is determined based on need and ability to pay.
  • College support is discretionary based on educational expenses and goals. Courts rarely mandate paying for higher education.
  • Most states terminate child support upon adoption. Some consider stepparent adoptions differently.

Enforcing Child Support Orders

Courts have significant power to enforce compliance with support orders when obligated parents fail to pay.

Contempt of Court

Missing payments may result in contempt of court charges. The parent must explain the delinquency. Punishment for contempt may be fines, jail time, wage garnishment, or liens.

License Suspension

Many states suspend driver’s, professional, and recreational licenses of parents who owe past-due support. This strong-arm tactic quickly prompts payments.

Passport Denial

Parents with arrears exceeding $2,500 may be denied U.S. passports or have existing passports revoked until fully paying amounts owed.

Tax Refund Interception

Unpaid support is reported to the federal government for intercepting tax refunds and applying those amounts to arrears. Most states likewise intercept state tax refunds.

Credit Bureau Reporting

Child support debts, like any financial judgments, are reported to credit bureaus and impact credit scores and ability to get loans or credit cards until satisfied.

Civil Judgments and Liens

Substantial arrears can result in civil judgments against property. Liens are placed on real estate, vehicles, bank accounts, or other assets until the debt is paid off.

Jail Time

Incarceration is a last resort but may occur if all other enforcement attempts fail. However, jail time does not erase unpaid amounts. Debt continues accumulating.

Modifying Child Support Orders

Existing child support orders can be reviewed and modified by courts if certain legal conditions are met. Either party may file for modification.

Substantial Change in Circumstances

A significant change in the financial means or custodial arrangements of one or both parents since the current order represents valid legal grounds for support modification.

Changes to Income or Earnings

A substantial increase or involuntary decrease in the paying parent’s income – through job loss, pay cut, or medical disability – warrants modifying support to align with current means.

Change in Physical Custody

If the child’s primary residence changes, support generally adjusts to reflect which parent now has more overnights. The parent with more custody often becomes the receiving parent.

Change in Parenting Time

Even without a full custody change, a significant increase or decrease in overnights may prompt support modifications, typically using state guidelines for split custody.

Other Changes in Household

A large change in household composition, such as another child coming into the paying parent’s home, may enable an order modification. Some states adjust support for half-siblings.

Change in Child’s Needs

Evolving needs related to a child’s healthcare costs, disability, education expenses, or extracurricular activities could provide grounds for modifying support amounts.

Remarriage or Relocation

Remarriage or relocation out of state does not automatically affect support. But related changes to income or expenses may permit modification requests.

Temporary Modifications

A temporary reduction in support based on short-term income loss from job change or illness may be ordered while the parent works to resume higher earnings.

Retroactive Modifications

Changes to support orders cannot be retroactive. Any modifications apply only from the time of filing onward. Past due amounts cannot be altered.

Modifying Frequency or Payment Method

Requests to change frequency from monthly to biweekly or use direct transfer rather than income withholding do not require showing changed circumstances as long as the total monthly amount paid is unchanged.

How Child Support Interacts with Taxes

Tax rules differ significantly for paying versus receiving parents when child support is involved.

Paying Parent Tax Considerations

For the paying parent, child support paid is not tax deductible or able to be claimed as a child tax credit if the paying parent does not claim the child as a dependent.

Receiving Parent Tax Considerations

The receiving parent who claims the child as a dependent can include court-ordered child support in their taxable income. However, the IRS does not require reporting if under $1,400 annually.

Dependent Tax Exemptions

Even when parents alternate claiming children on tax returns annually, only the custodial parent may claim the child tax credit and head of household filing status.

IRA Contributions

Paying parents may contribute more to an IRA account based on the child support paid and income. Receiving parents get no similar benefit.

Who Claims Children as Dependents?

The parent with primary physical custody usually claims dependent exemptions and child tax credits for the children each year. However, exceptions exist.

  • Per divorce decrees, parents may alternate tax years claiming children. This requires cooperation.
  • For joint physical custody, IRS tiebreaker rules based on parent with higher income and custody days determine the claiming parent.
  • The parent making child support payments cannot claim the payer tax credit. Only the receiving, custodial parent may do so.

Providing Health Insurance Under Support Orders

Most child support orders require one or both parents to maintain health and dental insurance for children if available through employers or other group plans.

Who Pays for Health Insurance?

The parent who maintains coverage pays premium costs unless the court order divides expenses. Paying costs balances obtaining better coverage.

Employer-Sponsored Plans

Adding children to an existing employer plan is most common. Loss of job-based coverage should prompt seeking new insurance.

Private Individual Plans

If employer coverage is unavailable, courts may order parents to obtain reasonable private insurance for kids. This can be expensive.

Insuring Stepchildren

Under insurance regulations, stepchildren must be insured if birth children are covered but are not necessarily required if employer insurance excludes stepkids.

Coverage Specifics

Parents must inform each other of details like network, copays, deductibles, and policy changes. Keeping insurance ID cards handy aids timely treatment.

Uninsured Expenses

Unreimbursed medical, dental, vision, or mental healthcare costs are typically shared pro rata or based on custody arrangements. Requests require proper documentation.

Consequences of Not Paying Support

Failure to pay court-ordered child support produces serious repercussions beyond collection efforts. Understanding consequences motivates compliance.

Effects on Children

  • Unpaid support shortchanges children’s basic needs, reducing financial stability.
  • Arrears and enforcement actions introduce uncertainty and stress for kids.
  • Strained resources negatively impact social, academic, and recreational opportunities.

Effects on Parents

  • Accumulating arrears damage the nonpaying parent’s credit rating, harming future finances.
  • Interest charges, penalties, fees, and collection costs increase amounts owed.
  • Professional licenses may be revoked for noncompliance, limiting career options.
  • Contempt charges carry fines or jail time plus a criminal record.

Effects on New Marriages and Relationships

  • Partners may resent the unpaid financial obligations to ex-spouses and children.
  • Accountability for back support can be a source of conflict.
  • Obligated parents have less income to contribute to new family units.
  • Driver’s license suspension reduces independence.

Improving Support Payment Consistency

  • Seek modifications promptly if losing job or income due to circumstances beyond control.
  • Explore state “compromise of arrears” programs to establish manageable repayment plans if post-divorce debt accumulated.
  • Consider voluntary income withholding to ease regular automated payments.
  • Open communication and financial transparency with ex-partners helps prevent arrears.


The child support determination and payment process involves many intricate considerations under state laws. While complex at times, child support represents a parent’s crucial commitment to promoting children’s financial security and wellbeing. Understanding guidelines, modifications, enforcement methods, insurance requirements, tax implications, and consequences for nonpayment enables parents to best uphold this vital ongoing obligation.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here