What Dads Need to Know About How Child Support Works

Father hugging young son wearing a backpack outside home

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Child support is a topic which tends to polarize all parties involved. Although in some situations, mothers pay child support to custodial fathers, in the vast majority of cases, mothers are the custodial parents and non-custodial fathers pay child support. So, how does the child support system work, and what does a father need to know in order to manage his obligations?

How Long Child Support Lasts

Generally, the law requires a person paying child support to make those payments until any of these apply:

  • Your child is no longer a minor unless the child has special needs
  • The child becomes active-duty military
  • Your parental rights are terminated through adoption or another legal process
  • Your ​minor child is declared "emancipated" by a court—that is, declared an adult earlier than normal because of the ability to be self-supporting.

Impact of the Custody Decision

Both parents have a responsibility to support their children financially. When a divorce occurs and one parent has physical custody of the children, that parent's responsibility is fulfilled by being the custodial parent. The other parent then makes a child support payment which fulfills that non-custodial parent's financial responsibilities. 

In the case of joint custody, the amount of child support each pays is normally calculated by the court considering the percentage each parent contributes to the couple's joint income and the percentage of time each parent has physical custody of the children.

Child Support When You're Not Married

The obligation to support a child is not conditioned by marriage. If you are a parent, you have a responsibility to financially support your offspring. Your parental responsibilities can be legally determined either through your acknowledgment that you are a parent, by the fact that you had welcomed the child into your home as your own, or as established by a paternity test.

State laws vary somewhat on the definition of a parent, so if there is some doubt about your parentage, you will want to consult with a family law attorney in your state.

It also happens at times that a man who fathered a child may not be asked to pay child support until the child's mother receives public assistance. In that case, the government may come to the father seeking back child support to reimburse the government for their assistance payments. Many fathers have been "blindsided" by these orders many years after the fact.

A Stepfather's Financial Liability

A stepfather is not financially liable for child support. However, if he legally adopts the children and thus terminates the parental rights of the biological father, the stepfather becomes liable for their financial support.

How the Amount of Child Support Is Determined

Each state in the United States is required by federal law to establish guidelines that are used to calculate child support due from parents based largely on their income and expenses. Because states have a fair amount of discretion in setting these guidelines, child support payments required vary widely between states, even under the same circumstances.

But normally, the courts will take into account issues like the standard of living of the child prior to divorce, the specific needs of the child, the resources of the custodial parent and the non-custodial parent's ability to pay.

Because in most states judges are allowed wide discretion in setting these payments, it is important for a non-custodial father to get as much information on the table with the court up-front to make the payments are fair as possible.

Modifying Child Support Due to Circumstances

While it depends on the judge and the circumstances, a child support payment would usually not be reduced if a father quit a full-time job and returned to school. If he became unemployed and then took a lower-paying job, a reconsideration of the amount of child support due might be appropriate.

A permanent change in child support is often considered when income changes due to remarriage, either parent has a job change that affects the ability to pay, or the child involved has new and different needs than were contemplated when the original amount was set.

Only the court can change a mandated child support payment, so any modification would have to be submitted to a judge. If both spouses agree on a change, it is usually a pretty simple process. When you don't agree, the request will be submitted by your family law attorney for a hearing. 

The spouse who wants to make a change over the other's objection has the burden to show what has changed and why a different amount (higher or lower) should be required. Temporary changes might be the result of a medical emergency, a change in employment status or a short-term economic hardship on the part of the receiving parent.

Withholding Child Support

One of the biggest complaints of non-custodial fathers is that their ex won't honor custody or visitation orders, and there is the temptation to withhold child support. This is not allowed. Child support payments and visitation are considered by the law to be totally separate issues. 

If your ex is not living up to the custody decree by providing visitation as required, you will need to go back to court to enforce the court order. You have an obligation to financially support your children, regardless of any visitation issues.

Consequences of Nonpayment

Not staying current on your child support obligations is called "big trouble." You are inviting a lot of legal involvement in your life and finances if you don't live up to your mandated child support obligations. Additionally, it can hurt your credibility with the court and with state enforcement officials if you want to later make changes to your parenting plan, your custody arrangements or other aspects of the legal relationship with your kids and your former spouse.

The court order entered as a part of your divorce and custody process defines the amount and payment schedule, as well as other conditions that might lead to recalibrating your commitments. These conditions might prescribe how much of a new raise might be added to your support obligations or what you can do with a windfall like an inheritance or an insurance settlement.

Failing to meet the child support schedule is seen as defying an order of the court and could land you in jail, resulting in a garnishment of your wages, intercepting your tax refund, seizing property, suspending your business license or driver's license or other serious consequences.

Garnishment is sometimes the most difficult as it involves your employer holding back some, most, or all of your income and remitting it to the state. When paying your back obligations involves your employer, it could create some unintended negative consequences at work. 

While Title III of the federal Consumer Credit Protection Act prohibits an employer from firing an employee for having a garnishment for any single indebtedness, you could be in trouble with your employer for multiple garnishments. Others that could come beyond your child support garnishments (like back taxes or other debts) could result in your being fired. So this is clearly something you want to avoid at almost any cost.

If you are having difficulty meeting your child support obligations, you might consider creating a more realistic budget, reducing your expenses, finding less expensive housing, getting a cheaper car or negotiating with creditors to lower your monthly debt obligation payments. These may seem like drastic measures and may really change your life, but a more austere lifestyle may be in order so that you can meet your obligations and provide for the care of your children.

If you become unemployed, take a pay cut, have large medical bills, or have some other extenuating circumstance, it is important that you begin the process immediately to have your child support amount modified. You would start by contacting your state's child support enforcement office and requesting to file a formal motion to modify your child support obligations. 

It is in your best interest to start this process as soon as something significant changes. In most cases, the law prohibits a judge from retroactively reducing a child support payment, even if a reduction is reasonable after the fact. And you will remain on the hook for the amounts required before the effective date of the modified child support order.

Getting behind on your child support payments is something that you need to think seriously about. Neglecting this important responsibility can have far-reaching consequences and is a lot more critical than many other choices you can make when times get tough financially. Just go in with your eyes wide open.

What If the Mother Refuses to Pay Court-Ordered Child Support?

If you are owed court-ordered child support by your child's mother, federal law requires the state or district attorney to help you collect delinquent child support payments. Most states have an entire bureaucracy (usually called something like the Office of Recovery Services) available to collect these payments, and you should start there.  

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Article Sources
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  1. National Conference of State Legislatures. Termination of Child Support- Age of Majority.

  2. U.S. Department of Labor. Federal Wage Garnishments.