Basics of Getting Child Support

Getting child support established during a separation or divorce is important because both parents have a responsibility to support their children.

By Tracy Achen, Divorce Coach

Unfortunately, this is a sore point for many parents who pay support. But they need to realize that the main purpose of child support is to maintain their children's standard of living after a divorce or separation.

It is not a form of punishment for the paying parent, nor is it a free ride for the receiving parent. It's about doing what's best for the children.

Getting a Child Support Order

Close-up of child support agreement to be filled out

If child support orders aren’t established in your divorce or separation papers, problems can occur if the non-custodial parent fails to live up to a verbal agreement. Courts don't recognize verbal agreements and won't enforce them. Which means you have no recourse if your ex decides to quit paying.

To make support payments enforceable, you need a child support order that is filed with the court. This is a document which states when, how often, and how much support will be paid.

Often, a child support agreement is included as part of your divorce petition and paperwork. It can also be included with the paperwork for parents who are getting a legal separation. And unmarried parents may also submit their own child support agreement to the court.

It's important to note that the court will need to approve the child support agreement to make sure it complies with your state's child support guidelines. Once it is approved and filed by the court, it becomes an enforceable child support order.

How Child Support Is Calculated

Each state has specific child support guidelines which are used to calculate the amount of child support which will be ordered in individual cases. Generally, these guidelines take into consideration:

  • the number of children to be supported, 
  • the income of one or both parents, 
  • the basic needs of the child, 
  • health insurance and daycare costs, and 
  • any extraordinary medical expenses.

Since each state uses a different child support formula, you can use the child support calculators found in the state divorce resources to determine the amount of support that would be ordered in your situation.

Your lawyer should also include a support calculation table when drawing up your divorce or separation papers, as well as provisions for registering with the State Child Support Division.

How Child Support Payments Are Made

Beginning in 1994, the Family Support Act mandated all states to require wage withholding for all child support orders. Exceptions will only be granted if there is a good cause or both parties agree in writing to an alternative arrangement.

To be effective, the wage assignment order must be served on the employer of the non-custodial parent before payments can start.  This order will direct your ex’s employer to deduct the child support from his earnings and make payments to you or to the child support enforcement division.

Support payments may either be paid directly to the custodial parent or indirectly through a court ordered program. It is becoming more common for payments to be made to court ordered programs for ease of enforcement, as it provides proof of payments that have been received and any arrearages that have occurred.

Getting Child Support Enforced

So what can you do if you aren't getting child support payments from your ex? If support was to be paid directly to you, you will need to go back to the court that established the order and file paperwork to enforce the order. If the payments were to be made to your state child support collection agency, you need to talk to the agency.

Federal law requires that states make their child support enforcement services available to any person requesting it. If you need help in getting child support and enforcing support orders, you can locate the Child Support Enforcement Agency for your state at the Main Child Support Enforcement Website.

To begin the enforcement process, the child support enforcement agency will need a copy of your support order, your ex's name, home and work addresses, and his social security number. They can then enforce the child support orders through various means such as:

  • wage withholding,
  • intercepting tax refunds,
  • reporting delinquencies to the credit bureaus,
  • suspending or revoking driver's, professional, or occupational licenses,
  • filing liens against bank accounts, property, or settlements,
  • passport denial,
  • court fines or jail time.

Another option for getting child support from a delinquent parent is to hire an outside an outside collection agency.  Child support collection agencies offer an alternative to existing government programs and private attorneys, and have a very successful collection rate.  Most don't charge an initial fee, but instead collect a percentage of the support that is actually paid.

Keep reading for more tips and information on the various issues in getting child support: