Child support is often one of the most disputed issues between a couple when a marriage ends. Although many people have the "traditional" idea that only the father is ordered to pay child support, today's court's take a more gender-neutral view toward child support payments. As in other states, child support payments in Alabama are determined by several factors relating to the relative circumstances of the mother, the father and the children.
In Alabama, children in a marriage or relationship where the parents are not living together are entitled to child support until they reach the age of majority, which in Alabama is 19. The principle behind the awarding of child support payments is to allow children to maintain the same standard of living that they had before the relationship between their parents ended. Child support payments are typically made to the custodial parent -- the parent who has primary custody of the children -- by the noncustodial parent. However, in cases where neither parent has custody, both parents may be ordered to make child support payments to a third party who has custody of the children. The party receiving child support payments has broad latitude to determine how to spend the money, although expenditures should be made in the interest of providing care and benefit to the children.
Calculation of Payments
For child support actions filed or put into force between October 4, 1993 and January 1, 2009, the state of Alabama has established one set of guidelines. For child support actions dated after January 1, 2009, a modified and updated set of guidelines apply. In both sets of guidelines, each named Rule 32, the courts consider several factors, including the relative income and earning potential for both parents, the number of minor children involved and their ages, as well as any unusual expenses, such as high health care costs for one or more children. However, when the noncustodial parent is deliberately unemployed or underemployed, the courts apply guidelines using the level of income that it determines the noncustodial parent should be able to earn, if he or she wanted to be fully employed.
Alabama allows either parent to petition for modification of the child support order to reflect significant changes in financial circumstances. Noncustodial parents can petition for a reduction of child support payments due to unemployment or other setbacks. Custodial parents may petition for an increase due to increased child care expenses or evidence of a significant increase in income for the other parent. Alabama applies state-mandated guidelines to what it considers to be significantly "changed circumstances"-- in general, the state awards a modification if the results would be at least 10 percent higher or lower than the original court-mandated amount of child support.
Many parents push for joint custody when their marriages or relationships break up -- and some of them do so in an attempt to avoid paying child support. However, in Alabama, joint custody does not automatically eliminate the possibility that the courts will order child support payments. Both versions of Rule 32 include a formula to determine whether either parent in a shared custody arrangement receives child support and the amount the other parent must pay. The courts use calculations and formulas, but if a child spends an equal amount of time with both parents, typically the higher-earning parent pays some child support to the lower-earning parent.
Access to Children
Some custodial parents prevent the other parent from visiting the children if there are unpaid child support payments. Likewise, many noncustodial parents withhold child support payments if they are not allowed to visit the children. However, the Alabama courts view child support and child custody as separate issues, and do not allow withholding one as "punishment" with regard to problems with the other.