In a country where divorce is the norm, not the exception, and many children are born to unwed mothers, the subject of child support can be volatile. When a parent takes custody of a child, they also take on a huge financial burden. Child support is intended to help those parents meet their children's financial needs within their means. If you're considering or in the midst of a divorce, here is everything you need to know about child support, how it is calculated and the penalties of non-payment.
What Is Child Support?
Child support is the court-ordered payments a non-custodial parent makes to support their minor child or children. This money contributes to the cost of housing, feeding, clothing and general care-taking needs of a young child. A single-income household often struggles to keep the electricity on and food on the table. Child support helps meet basic needs and allows children to enjoy holidays, extracurricular activities and other expenses that accrue when raising a well-adjusted and educated child.
How Much Will I Pay in Child Support?
Every state uses a unique set of guidelines to determine the amount of child support owed by the non-custodial parent. A number of factors affect the final amount awarded, including childcare expenses, percentage of custody, healthcare expenses, standard of living before a divorce, income, living expenses and more. Due to the different state guidelines, the amount ordered can vary dramatically, even when the situation is the same across states. For example, in California
, the guidelines are so complex that the state uses a special computerized formula to determine the final award, while in Massachusetts
, the form used to calculate support is readily available to the public. The judge also has some leeway when making a decision based on other financial considerations. Be sure to provide as much information as possible to keep support payments affordable.
How Long Do I Need to Pay Child Support?
Typically, child support payments
continue until a child reaches 18 years of age. It may also cease when a child reaches active duty military, seeks emancipation or gets married, or if parental rights are terminated in the case of an adoption. Another factor that can affect the duration of support payments is the mental and physical health of the child. Special needs children require financial support for a longer time period, and the courts often recognize that need with extended awards. Continuing educational expenses may also impact the duration of child support payments. If a child is still in high school after 18, the courts will probably issue an extension. They may also continue payments through college, depending on the state.
What Happens if I Fail to Pay Child Support?
Failure to pay court-ordered child support can be a criminal offense
in all states and is even a federal offense. The penalties for failure to pay range from six months as a misdemeanor to 14 years as a felony, depending on the state. Courts have repeatedly examined the issue of child support, with the laws enforcing child support upheld. Some states also exact other penalties when a parent falls behind on court-ordered support payments. In Maryland
and other states, falling into arrears on child support payments can cost a parent their driver's license. The rationale behind this penalty system is simple: parents in jail also fail to pay child support. By removing driving privileges, the state enforces a penalty that does not immediately remove the possibility of support.
Raising children comes with a financial burden that may not be able to be met from a single income. All minor children are entitled, under the law, to financial support from both parents. Until a child is 18, any non-custodial parent can be held liable for support payments. Failure to meet this financial obligation could lead to jail time. Flexible guidelines allow parents to demonstrate their financial ability and reduce payments to a reasonable level. If paying support is too much of a financial burden, never stop paying, but do consider contacting the courts about a reduction in the amount.