Understanding the Basics of Child Support

First, an order must be generated by a judge to set the terms of the arrangement and to provide a basis for enforcement in the case of a noncompliant parent. This order is often included in a divorce agreement, but an unmarried mother or father can also seek child support. To do so, the custodial parent would appear in family court to request an order. The court would likely grant this if the other person acknowledges their parentage or it is proven, for example, through a paternity test. Once entered by the judge, this order becomes a legal document establishing the method, frequency, and amount of payment that the parties will exchange, as well as the penalties that will ensue if the obligor (the person who must pay) fails to meet their payment requirements.

Payment Amounts

States have different methods for determining how much the obligor must pay. Some give judges more discretion over setting remittance amounts within certain guidelines while others have a strict formula. However, there are a few basic principles that govern their calculations. One model simply takes a percentage of the obligor’s income without considering the income of the person with custody. Nine states currently use a version of this method, which either remains flat or varies based on income level.

A more prevalent way of deciding the cost of payments is the income share model, which first calculates the total income that a couple living together would typically combine and use toward child-rearing expenses, then computes the share of this total for which the obligor is responsible. Thirty-eight territories have adopted this means of calculating support payments while five others use a hybrid version of the two aforementioned techniques. Regardless of the model used, if the payer’s income changes, they can request a modification of the order to be considered by the court.


When the person ordered to make payments fails to do so, there are various ways in which this breach can be enforced. Sometimes, state agencies are engaged to locate the noncustodial parent so that a collection process can begin. States also employ penalties to compel delinquent obligors to pay, including revoking driver’s licenses, or they can intercept sources of income like tax refunds or use wage garnishment to automatically collect past-due balances. In some situations, deadbeat parents can be jailed for repeatedly or willfully withholding child support.

Since many aspects of family law are state specific, child support enforcement can be complex when an involved party crosses state lines. For this reason, there have been several acts passed by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, and efforts by other interstate legislative commissions to alleviate conflicts between states’ statutes and to facilitate better enforcement throughout the country.

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