How Child Support Works

by Heather Frances J.D. Google

Child support is designed to ensure that children do not suffer financially when their parents split. When parents divorce, the divorce court establishes an amount of financial support the noncustodial parent must pay to the custodial parent. However, each state uses its own guidelines and methods to set and process these payments.

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Percentage of Income Method

Some states calculate child support based on a straight percentage of the noncustodial parent's income. In these states, the noncustodial parent pays the same percentage no matter how much the custodial parent makes. For example, Texas courts generally set a child support amount at 20 percent of the noncustodial parent's income if there is one child, and the percentage increases as the number of children increases. Since this method does not consider factors like the custodial parent's income, it is less common than other methods of support calculation.

Income Shares Method

A more common method of child support calculation is the income shares model, which is based on the idea that both parents should provide a portion of their incomes to support the child and that this portion should not change when the parents divorce. States that use this method and the Melson formula, which is similar to the income shares model, consider both parents' incomes when assigning a support amount. Generally, these states establish a percentage of both parents' incomes that must be paid for support, dividing that amount between the parents according to the proportion each contributes to their combined incomes. For example, if the noncustodial parent makes 30 percent of the parents' combined income, he will pay 30 percent of the total support amount set by the state.

Making Payments

Courts establish child support amounts in a court order, often as part of the divorce decree. This may be completed through an income withholding order, which requires the paying parent's employer to withhold money from the paying parent's wages. The employer then sends the money to a state agency which forwards that payment to the custodial parent. Noncustodial parents who are self-employed or unemployed have the same payment requirements but must send payments to the state agency on their own since they do not have employers to withhold the payment amounts for them.


State child support agencies and state courts have the authority to enforce child support orders when the noncustodial parent fails to pay support as ordered. The court that issued the order can hold the paying parent in contempt, even throwing him in jail. When the noncustodial parent refuses to pay, states can also place liens on the noncustodial parent's real estate or other property, suspend or revoke his driver's, professional or recreational licenses, seize his tax refund and bank account or intercept his government benefit payments.