Child Support Questions & Answers

by Beverly Bird

When parents of minor children divorce, one certainty is that their decree or judgment includes provisions for child support. It explains who pays what to whom, and how much. It should detail when support ends, but it may still leave a lot of questions unanswered. The finer details usually depend on where you live and your state's laws.

Child Support Calculated

The majority of states calculate child support based on the income shares model. This formula begins looking at the parents' combined income, and determining what percentage should be used for their children's needs after divorce. The amount is what state law estimates you probably would have spent on their needs if you had remained married. The non-custodial parent then pays the custodial parent a percentage of this amount equal to the percentage he contributes to the combined incomes. A few states -- nine plus the District of Columbia as of 2013 -- use a different approach called the percentage of obligor's income model. This formula only looks at the non-custodial parent's income, and support is a percentage of this based on the number of children who require support. For example, if you have two children, you'll pay about 25 percent of your earnings in child support.

What it Covers

Exactly what child support is supposed to cover can become a hotly-debated issue for parents after their divorce is final. It may help to understand going in that in most states, support is intended to cover only the basics -- shelter, clothing and food. You might find that the court orders you to pay for other things separately -- or that your ex will ask you to do so. For example, child support typically does not cover the cost of extracurricular activities or tuition for private schools. Some states add on to the base child support amount for the costs of work-related child care and health insurance premiums, but others incorporate these expenses into the child support formula, so they're included. This is often the case in states that use the income shares model. Uninsured medical expenses are typically paid in addition to child support. These costs are often apportioned between parents based on how much each contributes to their combined incomes.

Custodial Parent Contribution

It's a misconception that custodial parents don't have to pay child support -- they just don't write a check for it to the other parent. Custodial parents financially support the children's needs directly. They use their earnings toward the mortgage, the grocery bills and clothing.

When Support Ends

You'll probably pay child support until your child turns 18 or graduates from high school, whichever occurs later. However, the age could be as old as 21 in some states, including Indiana, Mississippi and New York, and a big extension might occur if your child decides to go to college. In some states, courts are authorized to order parents to contribute to these postsecondary education costs. Exactly how you might have to pay depends on the rules in your state. For example, you might have to begin paying college support, but your child support obligation would end -- college support would be in lieu of child support. You might have to pay both college support and child support, or your child support might be recalculated to include college support.

Job Loss Concerns

The child support provisions in your divorce decree aren't set in stone. You're allowed to go back to court later and have the amount modified if your circumstances change. However, this is a prerequisite in most states -- there must be a significant change of circumstances. It could be a job loss, or even a change in the physical custody arrangement. Additionally, if you're paying support for several children, you can modify the terms of your decree each time one of them reaches the age of majority, so you're supporting one less child. Your support order should decrease, provided other things, such as your incomes, remain equal.