What Is Child Support?

Quick Answer

When a couple with kids splits up, a judge typically requires the parent without primary custody to make monthly payments to the other parent. These payments are intended to help ensure the child’s basic needs are met. The exact amounts, requirements, and length of support vary by state law.

A couple and their child in a legal hearing to determine child support.

When couples divorce, some of the hardest conversations are around money and the division of assets and debts. For divorcing parents, an important part of the process is determining custody and, if necessary, financial assistance for the parent who receives primary custody, also known as child support.

Child support is an ongoing, court-ordered payment that's often required of the parent without primary custody. While rules vary by state, the goal of child support is to help the other parent with the costs of raising a child.

How Does Child Support Work?

In most states, parents have a legal obligation to support their kids and ensure their basic needs are met. Child support is a court-ordered requirement that one parent pay the other parent to help offset the costs of child-rearing. The parent with primary custody usually receives child support from the other parent, regardless of their gender.

If you're married and going through a divorce, child support will be determined by a judge in the divorce process. When a divorce is finalized, the judge issues a divorce decree that outlines requirements for things like custody, child support and/or spousal support.

Child support may also be required in certain types of legal separations, and even parents who were never married can face legal obligations to support their children financially after parenthood is legally established.

If the parent paying child support is employed, the money in many cases will go directly from their paycheck to their state's child support agency before being distributed to the receiving parent. The specifics of how often, and for how long, child support payments must be made can vary by state and by case, but generally the following can be expected:

  • The payments are usually made monthly. You can request that the judge permit a different schedule, such as weekly, biweekly, or bimonthly.
  • Child support is usually paid until the child reaches 18, though some state laws have exceptions.
  • Some states require assistance until the child graduates high school.
  • If the child goes to college, or they have serious mental or physical disabilities, child support may be required to be paid for longer.

And while child support arrangement isn't set in stone, neither parent can simply make changes on their own. If either parent has a major life change that impacts their finances and ability to pay child support, or creates a need for more child support—such as an injury or job loss—they can request an adjustment by legally filing for child support modification. It must be approved and changed by a judge to go into effect.

Who Is Eligible for Child Support?

The way states decide who pays child support usually comes down to custody and parental income.

Child support is usually paid to the parent with primary custody, meaning the parent the child lives with most of the time. For instance, if a father ends up with primary custody, the child's mother may be responsible for paying child support.

It is not required that the parents have ever been married. However, there must be clearly established parenthood in order to receive child support. This is more clear cut in formerly married couples, when there is a presumed father. In unmarried couples, there may need to be legal proceedings and genetic tests to determine paternity before a child support order will be granted.

Requirements vary by state and can get complicated in certain situations, such as same-sex parents, so a family lawyer may be necessary. The sooner you get a sense of your eligibility, the better you can plan for your finances after a divorce or separation.

How Much Child Support Can You Get?

Each state sets its own guidelines for child support laws, so requirements vary depending on where you live. The main factors that impact how much you can get are how much income you and the other parent make, and how much custody you both have, plus how many children there are. You'll need to contact your state's child support office for specific information on how it's calculated in your state.

According to federal law, however, no parent will have to pay more than 60% of their income toward child support if they don't have a second family—and no more than 50% if they do have a second family.

In states where spousal support or alimony are permitted, divorcing parents may be eligible to receive that (often for a limited time) in addition to child support. However, alimony or spousal support can impact the amount of child support received, especially if it would cause the amount to exceed 50% of the parent's wages. In these cases, the judge will adjust the support amounts so the parent has the ability to pay both.

All child support is intended to cover the child's basic living expenses, such as housing, food and clothing. Depending on the state, it may also be required for additional expenses, such as tuition, medical expenses, childcare, extracurricular activities, entertainment, transportation and more.

Child support payments are calculated according to your state's guidelines. Some states only factor in the non-custodial parent's income, while other states consider both parents' income. Either way, the goal is to be fair to all parties, and the amount should reflect both the child's needs and the parent's ability to pay.

There may be adjustments made according to state law for certain things like health care expenses, and a judge might be able to increase or decrease the amount if deemed necessary.

Failure to Pay Child Support Can Hurt Credit

Failure to pay child support is serious business, with the worst-case scenario being jail time. Before it gets to that point, however, the government takes less drastic measures that may include suspending a parent's driver's license, restricting their passport, garnishing their wages, taking away government benefits and more.

Credit scores can also be affected if state child support agencies report overdue payments to the credit bureaus. The agencies may agree to not report late or missed payments if the parent catches up, but if the child support payments are marked as delinquent, they can stay on credit reports and negatively affect credit scores for up to seven years.