Lawmakers understand the importance of providing financial support to a child and not having a child’s financial circumstances be different just because their parents are no longer together. Therefore, they have established specific guidelines and rules regarding child support.

Child support often covers the basic needs of a child, including funds to help pay for food, shelter, and clothing. States differ as to whether child support includes payment for other goods and services, such as medical expenses, childcare expenses that are necessary for their parent to work, or other expenses. In some states, these amounts are included in the child support amount while in other states, parents are instructed on how to pay these expenses. In some states, child support may also include payment for post-secondary educational expenses.

Some parents may use the guidelines to know how much one parent should provide in financial support to the other parent and may reach a voluntary agreement regarding support. However, the more common scenario is for one parent to ask the court to order child support.

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Who Pays Child Support After Divorce?

Typically, the non-custodial parent is responsible for paying child support to the custodial parent. However, child support may be awarded even in cases in which joint physical custody is ordered. The goal of child support is to provide the same lifestyle in both households so that the child does not feel a marked difference when in one home versus the other.

How Is Child Support Determined?

The child support definition and rules regarding how the amount of child support s determined vary by each state. Each state usually uses a method in which the child’s expected cost of living is determined based on one or both parents’ incomes and then allocates a certain amount of child support to the obligated parent to pay the other parent. There are different guidelines that courts use to determine child support, the most common being:

Income Shares Model

Under the Income Shares Model, the principle is that the child should receive the same proportion of parental income that he or she would have had if the parents stayed together. In intact households, parents generally pool their incomes together to support the household. In states that use this model, the amount of child support is determined by:

  • Adding the parents’ incomes together. Parent A makes $4,000 a month while Parent B makes $6,000 a month. 
  • Determining the basic child support amount by using a statutory table based on the parents’ combined income. State X says that the basic child support amount is $1,500.
  • Adding other expenses to the basic child support amount, such as childcare and extraordinary medical expenses, to derive the presumptive child support amount. This makes the new child support obligation $2,000. 
  • Allocating the child support obligation between the parent, based on their percentages of the income. In this example, Parent A makes 40% of the income, so his or her obligation would be $800 ($2,000 * 40%) and Parent B makes 60% of the income, so his or her obligation would be $1,200 ($6,000 * 60%). The parent who is ordered to pay child support would make the payment to the other parent. The other parent is presumed to pay their amount of the obligation through caring for the child.

Percentage of Income Model 

The Percentage of Income Model only factors in the non-custodial parent’s income. Using the example above, the child support obligation would be determined as follows:

  • Calculate the non-custodial parent’s monthly income. If this is Parent B, that would be $6,000.
  • Use the statutory table to determine the child support amount based on the parent’s income and the number of children. Let’s say Parent B has two children and the child support guidelines say that the support obligation is 25%.
  • Apply the percentage to the income. This would be $6,000 * 25%, or $1,500.
  • Make necessary adjustments, such as for childcare. 

Melson Formula

The Melson Formula is a less common and more complicated model that is based on the Income Shares Model. However, it differs because it incorporates a number of public policies into its calculation to ensure that the child’s and the parents’ basic needs are met.

Changing Child Support Payments

Once child support is court-ordered, this order usually remains effective until it automatically terminates (such as when the child turns 18 or graduates high school) or until it is modified. States may have different rules in place for when a child support obligation may be modified, such as a change in monthly income of $200 or 10% or more or if a material change occurs, such as:

  • The loss of a job
  • Retirement
  • A significant change in expenses
  • Changes in childcare or medical expenses
  • If one of the parents remarries or has a child

To change the existing order, the parent wanting the change would file a petition with the court asking to modify it. This is fairly straightforward if both parents agree to the change. If they do not agree, a court hearing may be scheduled and the parent wanting to make the change will need to prove why this is necessary.

Does Child Support Have To Be Spent On The Child?

When people consider “What is child support?” they often think about things that directly benefit the child, such as clothes, toys, or classes. However, child support can also be used for just that – to support the child. Therefore, child support payments can go to pay for the child’s portion of rent, utilities, and other housing costs. It can also go to pay for food. 

Child support payments are made to the other parent – not directly to the child. In most states, the parent who receives these payments is expected to use the funds for their intended purpose and there is no oversight or accounting that is required, but there may be exceptions if a parent believes the funds are not being used properly. 

What Does Child Support Cover?

State law and the child support order determine what child support covers, which may include:

Food, Clothing and Shelter

Child support is intended to provide for the basic needs of the child, including the reasonable costs for food, clothing, and shelter.

Child Care

In many states, the amount of childcare that is necessary for a parent to work is added onto the basic child support obligation and may then be allocated between the parents.

Medical Care

In some states, one parent is ordered to pay for the cost to provide health care insurance for the child in addition to the regular child support amount. Any uncovered medical expenses may then be split equally or in some other way between the parents. Extraordinary medical expenses may be added in the adjustments to the basic child support obligation.


Child support may also be used to pay for costs related to education, such as:

  • Textbooks
  • School fees
  • Private school tuition
  • School uniforms
  • Lunch money
  • Private tutors

Some states allow child support to extend to college years and child support may be used to cover college expenses like tuition and fees.

Extracurricular Activities

Child support may also cover extracurricular activities inside and outside of school, such as:

  • Sports
  • Clubs
  • After-school programs
  • Enrichment activities
  • Summer camps
  • Private lessons

Transportation & Travel

Child support also covers the cost to transport a child, such as to and from school and visits, including the costs to purchase and maintain and insure a vehicle. Child support can also be used to pay for travel costs involving the child, including taking vacations.


Child support also covers a child’s entertainment, such as toys, museum visits, books, games, movies, and more. 

Other Costs

The court may order other costs to be paid through the support obligation or in addition to it for other expenses. 

What Does Child Support Not Cover?

What child support is intended to cover should be described by state law and in the child support order. Child support should not be used to cover an expense that the court specifically excluded. Child support does not cover unreasonable expenses or expenses that do not directly or indirectly relate to the child. If there is more money left over from the month after child support is reasonably used, it can be saved to provide for the future needs of the child. 

What Happens When You Don’t Pay Child Support?

If you do not pay court-ordered child support, you may face a number of serious consequences, including:

  • Possible jail time
  • Additional fees, penalties, and interest
  • A suspended driver’s or professional license
  • Interception of income tax refunds, gambling winnings, or prize earnings
  • Liens on your home and other valuable property
  • Publication of your face and identifying information in a “deadbeat parents” publication, where applicable
  • Being found in contempt of court
  • Garnishment of wages
  • Exclusion from benefits from certain government programs
  • Denial or non-renewal of your passport
  • Reports to the credit bureaus

Visitation & Child Support

Generally, visitation and child support are treated as two different legal matters. If a parent is behind on a child support obligation, this does not usually give the other parent the right to refuse visitation. Likewise, if a parent pays child support, this does not give him or her an immediate right to visitation. 

There are ways when child support and visitation may affect each other, though. For example, the number of “overnight” visits are sometimes used as a factor in determining the amount of child support because family courts generally recognize that the more time a parent has with his or her child, the more he or she will spend on caring for him or her. Additionally, many states allow courts to consider the financial histories of parents seeking primary custody or to change the existing custodial arrangement. If a parent has not maintained his or her financial obligation of paying child support, the court may not think they would be able to properly provide for the child if custody was altered.

How To Explain Child Support To Your Child

For the most part, children do not need to know the technicalities of child support. Parents should not tell their children if the other parent is behind on child support or act as a messenger or collection agency between parents. If a child hears the term “child support,” a parent can simply explain that this is financial support that helps pay for the child’s needs. 

Child Support FAQs 

Here are some additional questions and answers surrounding child support:

What Does Child Support Take Into Consideration? 

The particular factors that courts consider when awarding child support depend on what type of child support model the state uses. However, some common considerations include:

  • The income of each parent
  • The earning capacity of the obligated parent so income can be imputed to him or her if unemployed or underemployed
  • The number of children to be supported
  • The parent’s ability to pay
  • The financial needs of the child
  • The child’s standard of living
  • Extraordinary expenses

What Does Child Support Cost? 

The amount of child support depends on several factors (see above). Additionally, when a clearinghouse or child support enforcement agency is involved, a portion of the child support payment may be used to offset the expenses of this organization.

Does Child Support Include Health Insurance? 

Child support may or may not include health insurance, depending on state law and the child support order. In some cases, the obligated parent is instructed to provide health insurance for the child and this expense is in addition to the child support payment.

What Are The Main Reasons To Pay Child Support? 

Child support helps pay for the essential needs of your child. Making this financial contribution helps ensure that your child has the things he or she needs and can also give you a sense of accomplishment by providing for your child. If you are court-ordered to pay child support, not paying can subject you to several serious penalties, including possible incarceration and the loss of your license. 

Does Child Support Cover School Lunches?

Whether child support covers school lunches depends on whether the state includes this expense in their statutory tables and whether the child is eligible for free or reduced school lunches.

Who Pays Childcare After Divorce? 

The parents may reach an agreement regarding who should be responsible for paying childcare after a divorce, or the court may order one parent to pay or for the parents to split this cost. If childcare is not included in the child support obligation, a modification may be necessary to account for this expense.

What Are Special Expenses For Child Support? 

There may be various additional expenses that a child will incur that can be factored into the appropriate amount of child support, such as medical expenses, extracurricular expenses, travel expenses, transportation expenses, postsecondary education expenses, and more.

Does A Father Have To Pay More In Child Support? 

The state laws regarding child support are gender-neutral, so fathers are not obligated to pay more in child support than women in comparable positions.

Can I Reach My Own Child Support Agreement? 

Parents are often encouraged to reach their own agreements regarding child custody and child support matters. Parents can submit these agreements to the court for its review and approval. Often, these agreements must meet the statutory guidelines for child support or provide strong justification why they do not. 

Where Can I Learn More?

You can learn more about child support by talking to a knowledgeable family lawyer in the state where your child support order was entered into or through your state’s child support enforcement agency.

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