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 can be a polarizing topic. Although mothers can pay child support to custodial fathers, in the majority of cases, mothers are the custodial parents and non-custodial fathers pay child support.

Here's an overview of how the child support system works and what you need to know to manage your obligations.

How Long Child Support Lasts

Generally, the law requires that the person paying child support continues to make those payments until any of the following circumstances apply:

  • Your child is no longer a minor (unless the child is still in high school or has special needs)
  • Your child becomes active duty in the military (applies to most states, but not all; you will also have to file a motion with the court)
  • Your parental rights are terminated through adoption or another legal process
  • Your ​minor child is declared legally emancipated by a court (in which case the court has determined the child is able to be self-supporting)

Impact of the Custody Decision

Both parents have the 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 to fulfill their non-custodial parent financial responsibilities. 

In most cases of joint custody, the amount of child support each parent is required to pay is normally calculated by the court. It takes into account the percentage that each parent contributes to the couple's joint income as well as 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 any child that you parent.

Your parental responsibilities are legally determined in one of two ways:

  • You acknowledge that you are a parent by welcoming your child into your home and caring for them as your own
  • Your parentage is established by a paternity test

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

In some cases such as when the child's mother receives public assistance, any child support paid by the father will go directly toward the state where it is then split with the federal government. The government may also seek back payments from the father to reimburse them for any assistance payments that were paid to the mother prior to intercepting the child support.

A Stepfather's Financial Liability

Stepfathers are not usually financially liable for child support. The exception is when a stepfather legally adopts a child (thus terminating the parental rights of the child's biological father), in which case he becomes liable for financially supporting the child.

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. These amounts are largely based on their income and expenses.

Individual states have a fair amount of discretion in setting these guidelines, which means that child support payments required can vary widely between states (even under the same circumstances).

The court will consider several factors, such as a child's standard of living prior to divorce, a child's specific needs, the resources of the custodial parent, and the non-custodial parent's ability to pay.

In most states, judges are allowed wide discretion in setting these payments. It is important for a non-custodial father to provide information to the court up-front to make the payments are fair as possible.

Modifying Child Support Payments

While it depends on the judge and the circumstances, a child support payment is usually not reduced if a father quits a full-time job and returns to school. If a father becomes unemployed and then takes 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:

  • A parent's income changes after remarriage
  • Either parent has a job change that affects their ability to pay
  • The child has new/different needs than were contemplated when the original amount was set

Only the court can change a mandated child support payment. A parent's request for modification must be submitted to a judge. If both parents agree on a change, it is usually a simple process. If parents do not agree, the request will be submitted by a family law attorney for a hearing. 

The parent 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. 

Examples of temporary changes could be due to a medical emergency, a change in employment status, or a short-term economic hardship on the part of the receiving parent.

Withholding Child Support

A common complaint of non-custodial fathers is that their ex refuses to honor custody or visitation orders. In this situation, there is a temptation to withhold child support, but this is not allowed. 

Child support payments and visitation are considered by law to be separate issues.

If your ex is not abiding by 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 can be a major problem. You are inviting legal involvement in your life and finances if you do not live up to your mandated child support obligations.

Falling behind on child support can also hurt your credibility with the court and state enforcement officials. The damaged relationship can make it more difficult to 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. 

In some cases, these conditions will prescribe how much of a substantial increase in your salary could be added to your support obligations, or what you will be allowed to do with a cash windfall such as an inheritance or insurance settlement.

Failing to meet the child support schedule is seen as defying an order of the court. Possible consequences include:

  • Short-term jail time
  • Garnishment of your wages
  • Interception of your tax refund
  • Seizure of your property
  • Suspension of your business and/or driver's license

Garnishment is one of the most difficult consequences, as it involves your employer holding back some, most, or all of your income and remitting it to the state. If your back child support obligations involve your employer, you could experience negative consequences at work. 

Title III of the federal Consumer Credit Protection Act prohibits an employer from firing an employee for having a garnishment for any single indebtedness.

However, you could still get in trouble with your employer if you have multiple garnishments beyond child support including back taxes or other debts.

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, but a more austere lifestyle might be required for you to meet your obligations and provide for the care of your children.

If you become unemployed, take a pay cut, have large medical bills, or experience other extenuating circumstances, you should immediately initiate the process of having your child support amount modified.

The first step is contacting your state's child support enforcement office and requesting to file a formal motion to modify your child support obligations. 

In most cases, the law prohibits a judge from retroactively reducing a child support payment, even if a reduction is reasonable after the fact. Therefore, you will remain responsible for the amounts required before the effective date of the modified child support order.

Getting behind on your child support payments can create serious difficulty in your life. Neglecting your responsibility can have far-reaching consequences for you and your family.

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 a bureaucracy (which may have a name like the Office of Recovery Services) available to collect these payments. This office is the best place to start if you are owed child support.

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Article Sources
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  2. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Children’s Bureau/ACYF/ACF/HHS. Grounds for Involuntary Termination of Parental Rights. Updated December 2016. 

  3. New York State Unified Court System. Emancipated Child. Updated April 3, 2017.

  4. National Conference of State Legislatures. Child Support 101.2: Establishing Paternity. 2014.

  5. Child Welfare Information Gateway. Stepparent Adoption. 2013.

  6. Office of Child Support Enforcement. Changing a Child Support Order. Updated August 2017.

  7. The United States Department of Justice. Citizen’s Guide to U.S. Federal Law on Child Support Enforcement. Updated May 28, 2020. 

  8. National Conference of State Legislatures. Child Support and Incarceration. 2019.

  9. Office of Child Support Enforcement. What Happens If Child Support Isn't Paid? Updated November 7, 2019.

  10. U.S. Department of Labor. Wages and Hours Worked: Wage Garnishment. Updated December 2016.

  11. Office of Child Support Enforcement. Final Rule: Prohibition of Retroactive Modification of Child Support Arrearages. 1989.