All parents, regardless of their custodial rights, have a responsibility to support their kids in accordance with children’s needs and the parent’s financial abilities. Child support may be either direct or indirect, and supervised or unsupervised. Ordinarily, a parent’s child support obligation lasts at least until the youngest child reaches 18, marries, or becomes financially independent, but can extend much longer if the child goes to college or otherwise remains reasonably dependent on the custodial parent.

The policy goal of child support law is, to the extent possible, to put the child in the same financial situation he or she would have been in had the parents stayed together. However, this is often difficult or impossible to do, because of the fact that after divorce, the parents lose out on the economic benefits of marriage (shared rent, utility costs, food, etc.), with no corresponding increase in income. Because of this, it is common for both parents to reasonably claim that their particular child support order is both too burdensome for the obligor and yet not enough to cover the basic needs of the child.

Because of the extremely high rate of divorce and single parent births in the United States, the government has become increasingly involved in regulating child support law. Although parents are still generally free to form a child support agreement on their own, the agreement must be reviewed and approved by the presiding judge before it becomes effective. Most states have enacted child support guidelines, many of which are mandatory, and have begun taking an aggressive role in in collecting child support from non-custodial parents. Although each state has its own guidelines, there are several common factors that are considered:

  • The actual and potential wage earnings of both parents
  • The division of property and debts in the divorce decree
  • The lifestyles of the parties and children
  • The relative health of the parties and then children
  • Cost of living

There are two basic models for child support guidelines, the income shares model and the straight percentage model. Under the income shares model, the incomes of both parents are combined and a total child support entitlement amount is figured. From there, each parent is assigned a pro rata share of the entitlement amount, which the non-custodial parent must actually pay to the custodial parent. In states that use the straight percentage model, only the income of the non-custodial parent is considered, and a straight percentage of that income is paid out as child support. The income shares model is the most typical, although some states have combined the two models into a hybrid version.

Child support orders, like custody orders, are modifiable if there has been a substantial and material change in the circumstances of the parents or children. Often this happens when a parent loses his or her job, or experiences significant changes in cost of living through no fault of their own. Courts will modify orders if the obligor has a legitimate reason for no longer being able to meet his or her child support obligation, but the court will make an inquiry into the circumstances before doing so. In cases where the child support obligor is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed, or could be making more money in a different career field, the court is permitted to impute the obligor’s potential salary, and set the child support accordingly.

Frequently, the state or local government will directly oversee the child support payment process. Often this means the court will choose to enter a child support withholding order, through which the child support obligation is automatically taken from the payer's paycheck and delivered to the custodial parent. If the non-custodial parent falls behind or stops paying, the state can use coercive methods to obtain the support, such as withholding money from tax refunds, seizing personal property, or threatening jail time. Inability to pay child support is a justifiable defense, but as with the modification process, a court will likely be skeptical. Despite this, enforcing child support orders and collecting past due amounts remains a difficult problem. Custodial parents who are owed back child support must use the court’s contempt power to collect, which can be a slow and difficult process. Self-help methods are generally not allowed, and it is not permissible to withhold parenting time from a non-custodial parent simply because he or she has not paid child support.