What Does Child Support Cover?

By Cindy Hill

Child support payments are a ubiquitous feature of divorce decrees for parents of minor children. Non-custodial parents often wonder what they're paying for when they write a check for child support each month. The primary purpose of child support is not to equalize the income of the two former spouses, but rather to provide the children with the same level of economic support they would have had if their parents had remained together.

Basic Needs

Child support payment amounts are set by guidelines established by the laws of each state. Basic child support, calculated based on the intersection of custody time and spousal income, is intended to cover only basic living expenses, such as clothing, shelter and food. Despite the increasing need for children to participate in extracurricular activities, team and social clubs to acquire the skills and character necessary to enter college and the workplace, basic child support awards are not designed to cover these expenses.

Additional Support

Courts in most states increase the basic child support obligation to include expenses that are increasingly becoming necessary to allow the custodial parent to work and to cover health care costs for the child. These increased orders may include payments for work-related daycare, health insurance premiums and uninsured medical expenses. These costs are calculated outside of the basic child support guideline calculations because the cost of daycare facilities and the necessary uninsured medical costs will vary widely from family to family, depending on location and circumstances.

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Extraordinary Expenses

Entertainment expenses, including music lessons, summer camps, sports team fees and equipment, pets and school field trips, are not ordinarily included in the basic child support payment. Divorce courts may order that the non-custodial parent provide extra payments for these extraordinary expenses if the parties' resources allow the payments to be made. When the non-custodial parent has limited economic means, family law courts often hold that the custodial parent must make do with the basic child support payment to cover the child's extracurricular and personal growth activities.

Parenting Time

Parenting time, or custody, has a significant effect on the amount of the child support payment order. When non-custodial parents have considerable visitation time, they are also contributing to the child's shelter and food during these times, so this decreases child support obligations in most states. Other factors taken into consideration when calculating child support include whether the non-custodial parent is making child support payments for other children, or has additional minor children in his household.

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Getting a Divorce in a Long-Term Marriage

Many of the same things are at issue when long-term and short-term marriages end: the marital home, retirement benefits and alimony. The longer the marriage, the less likely it is that child support and custody will be in dispute; children may have flown the nest after a 20-year marriage, or are close to doing so. However, like their children, parents grow older during the term of the marriage as well. This can put a different spin on the same issues.

Divorce & College Expenses

When parents divorce, the parent who is responsible for the day-to-day care and physical custody of the children (the custodial parent) receives regular financial assistance from the noncustodial parent in the form of child support. Courts award and modify child support amounts based on each parent's financial situation and child's changing needs. When it comes to paying for college, state laws vary significantly, so parents in one state may be required to contribute to such expenses while parents in another state may be under no financial obligation to do so after the child reaches the age of majority, often 18. Of course, marital settlement agreements also come into play as parents are free to agree to the terms of child or college support during divorce proceedings, provided the terms meet minimum state guidelines.

Why Does a Parent That Doesn't Have Custody Have to Pay Child Support?

Just as you support your children financially while you're married, you must continue to do so when you divorce. The major difference is that if you divorce, the government keeps a watchful eye on whether you're paying – at least if you're the non-custodial parent. Child support is designed to ensure that your children enjoy the same standard of living as they would have enjoyed if you and your spouse didn't break up.

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