Regardless of circumstances, a custodial parent is entitled to financial support from the child’s other parent.
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This guide was originally published on July 25, 2019 in NYT Parenting.
Some 27 percent of children in the United States have a parent who lives outside their household. If you do not share a home with your child’s other parent, and the child lives with you most of the time, you are the custodial parent and you are entitled to child support.
The federal government mandates that every state have child support guidelines and enforcement policies on the books. The frameworks and processes for getting support vary by state. The models used to calculate support also vary by state, but all consider income, number of children and the children’s medical needs. Child support is calculated in the same way whether you are unmarried and separating, getting divorced or had a baby following an encounter with a relative stranger.
You have four options when filing for support: doing it solo at court, working with a mediator, hiring an attorney or letting your state’s child support agency assist you. The process is likely to take at least several months, depending on the state and your particular situation, but states are required to start the process within 90 days of locating the noncustodial parent and most orders are established within another six months.
If you’re unlucky and you have to chase the money — or if your child’s other parent doesn’t have it — it could take years. While single dads are increasingly a part of their kids’ lives, the child care burden still falls disproportionately on women: 15 million kids under age 18 live with a solo mom and 3 million live with a solo dad. The good news is that many states are getting better at outreach, job training and job referrals for noncustodial parents. When both parents support their kids and stay involved, kids have better outcomes.
For this guide, I consulted government executives, policy advocates and researchers, economists, mediators, statisticians, demographers and attorneys.
States have lots of leeway in how they apply federal child support guidelines, and the agency that houses your state’s child support program depends on where you live. Find your state on this map: You can fill out an application for support online and learn which county court to visit to start the process.
According to the United States Census Bureau, only half of custodial parents have legal or even informal child support agreements.
Some people figure out their state’s child support formula and casually organize payments with their exes, but experts advise against these informal arrangements. “Get the court order,” said Rachel Green, a mediator in Brooklyn, N.Y. Child support starts on the day you file, not earlier, and if the other parent stops paying, you can only get back support from the date you filed, she said. You cannot apply for support until the baby is born.
It’s worth getting the court order. Two-thirds of parents who have filed got some support from noncustodial parents, the Census Bureau found, but only 44 percent received the full amount. On average, custodial parents received $3,447 annually in 2015. That amount can lift kids out of poverty, according to Meghan McCann, a senior policy specialist at the nonprofit National Conference of State Legislatures.
Support is typically based on each parent’s income and the amount of time a child spends with each parent.
If you’re a custodial parent — that is, your child lives with you most of the time — you are entitled to help from the noncustodial parent covering the financial costs of raising your child. Child support includes food, shelter, transportation, clothing, entertainment and miscellaneous expenses, such as toys or sports equipment. It continues until the child is “emancipated” — at 18 or 21, depending on the state.
States use one of three models to calculate support. Most follow an “income shares” model, which pools the parents’ incomes and divides the costs of raising a child proportionally. Others look at only the noncustodial parent’s income or a hybrid model. Formulas vary, but what’s consistent across state lines is that the higher-earning parent still pays child support if you have 50-50 physical custody. However, if you’re the higher earner and you have physical custody, say, 70 percent of the time, in most states your child’s other parent may instead have to pay you. This is because states prioritize custody over income — the person who takes care of the child most of the time (51 percent or more) gets the support, even if he or she is earning more.
All states also require support arrangements to provide for children’s health care needs, typically through orders for health insurance and uncovered medical costs. Many states factor the actual out-of-pocket costs of the child’s health care expenses into the support formula. If neither parent has health insurance, support orders typically include language about enrolling the child in either parent’s health insurance policy if it becomes available at a reasonable cost, Venohr said. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) are free or low-cost for kids and teens.
Some, but not all states also make adjustments to the formula for work-related child care expenses. About 37 states take physical custody (“parenting time”) arrangements into consideration when calculating support.
“States are required to review their child support guidelines every four years, but that doesn’t mean they’ll change them,” said Jane Venohr, an economist at the Center for Policy Research in Denver. As part of that review, states must look at the costs of raising children when considering support. What that means in practice may vary, because states have a lot of flexibility in their guidelines and in the data they may consider to create those guidelines. Some states choose to not update their guidelines and formulas after reviewing them. “Noncustodial parents are entitled to a review of the child support order every three years, but can get the order reviewed before then if there is a ‘substantial and material change in circumstances,’ such as custody or income,” McCann said.
Represent yourself in court pro se, or on your own behalf, with caution. That said, you can fill out the paperwork online or with the help of the clerks at most courthouses. “Bring any income information about your ex to family court, you can file for child support in a day. It’ll be a long day,” Green said, describing the process in New York City. The court will set a date for a hearing, and you’ll have to serve your ex papers in advance. In New York, you have two choices. “You can ask someone who is over the age of 18 (but not you) to hand your ex those documents and then sign a notarized affidavit stating that he or she handed the papers to the defendant,” Green said. The other option is to let family court mail the paperwork for you. Then you’ll bring your financial statements to the hearing that determines the child support, Green said.
“The way it’s done differs from state to state and even by county within a particular state, and ranges from certified mail to delivery by the sheriff,” Venohr said. Serving papers to your child’s other parent (“the defendant”) can be intimidating, but it’s important. Frances Pardus-Abbadessa, the executive deputy commissioner at the New York City Human Resources Administration, Office of Child Support Services, said: “You have to prove service because the court needs to know that the noncustodial parent was informed of the upcoming court hearing and received notice within the prescribed timeline.”
At the hearing, if your ex is a no-show, the custodial parent must prove that the papers were served, Pardus-Abbadessa said. The notarized affidavit is proof that papers were served, and the case can then proceed even if your ex does not appear. If the court is uncertain about service, it will adjourn the case. Then either the court asks the sheriff to serve those papers or it (or you) hires a process server, which is an outside vendor that serves all kinds of legal documents. Again, remember that every state is different, so make sure you are clear about the process when you file a petition for support.
If you can sit in a room with your ex, hammer out an agreement with a mediator. That person will negotiate a settlement based on the state’s support calculator, and will help you get financial forms together, establish legal paternity or “parentage,” and file the paperwork in court for you. This lets you create your own timeframe and conditions for recalculating support. You can go back to the table annually, every three years, every time there’s a change in job circumstances or whenever you like.
Get a lawyer if you expect legal challenges or if your ex is moving money around. If you have to chase the money, you need a lawyer, said Karen Van Kooy, a managing partner at Israel, Van Kooy & Days in Brookline, Mass. “When I’ve had fights of that nature, I do an analysis not of the money they have, but the lifestyle they’re living,” she said. “You may need to do a ‘discovery’ and officially request documents from them, and that puts you in a litigation situation.”
If you’re a same-sex parent trying to get support from — or give support to — your ex-partner, it’s best to get an attorney. Your rights depend on whether you are recognized as a parent in your state, and states vary in how they recognize “parentage.”
Consider using the services of your state’s child support agency, which enforces Title IV-D of the Social Security Act of 1975, to guide you through the process. Every state has a Title IV-D agency that will locate the noncustodial parent, establish paternity (legal fatherhood), draw up child and medical support orders, and collect and enforce payments.
“People who are middle-income or above don’t always realize they can get IV-D services,” Venohr said. “The law was aimed at helping single parents on public assistance get child support and helping other parents avoid needing public assistance, but anyone can get it.” According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Child Support Enforcement, if you’re not on public assistance, it costs between $0.00 and $25 to apply and $35 annually if $550 or more in support is collected that year. To get money from a delinquent parent, IV-D attorneys may put liens on property or seize bank accounts. They will chase the money across state lines or abroad.
“Many states now refer noncustodial parents to job services to support families but also to allow for wage garnishment,” McCann said. “Of the $32 billion in child support collected in 2017, 75 percent of it came through wage garnishment.”
“We believe the best way to support your children is to be employed,” Pardus-Abbadessa said. Helping noncustodial parents find jobs is the cornerstone of their program, she said. “We found 1,600 noncustodial parents jobs in 2018.”
To get Title IV-D services, fill out the application on your state’s website.
Child support traditionally hinges on establishing legal parentage. It grants a child financial and emotional support, and access to both parents’ Social Security benefits and health insurance.
If you give birth to a child, you are recognized as a parent. For the spouse or partner of a woman who gives birth to a child, there are several ways to establish legal parentage. If you are married, there’s a marital presumption: States presume the spouse is the child’s parent. (This is not necessarily the case for same-sex spouses in every state.) State laws vary on the circumstances under which that marital presumption can be rebutted. All states offer unmarried partners the option to sign a Voluntary Acknowledgement of Paternity, or VAP; in some states, this is called a Voluntary Acknowledgment of Parentage and is available for both male and female partners. Some states will look at whether there is a signed birth certificate or may require genetic testing.
For same-sex parents, there are no laws in common to all states, said Leslie Cooper, deputy director of the A.C.L.U. L.G.B.T. & H.I.V. project. “Whether someone is even obligated to support a child turns on whether they are recognized as a parent under their state’s law,” she said. “An adoption or other court order establishing parentage is recognized in every state and should give you 100 percent security.” Adoptive parents are full legal parents who are obligated to pay and entitled to get support.
Other laws that may help same-sex parents and heterosexual nonbiological parents get or give child support include VAP; assisted conception laws that establish parentage for an individual who consents to a spouse’s (and in some states, partner’s) use of assisted conception; and de facto parentage (sometimes called in loco parentis), which recognizes you as a parent based on the parent-child relationship that has formed over time, Cooper said.
“The Uniform Parentage Act, which has been adopted by most states in one way or another, was amended in 2017 to include parentage, not just paternity, and to add language around assisted reproduction,” McCann said. The amendment removes gendered language, recognizes same-sex couples on their child’s birth certificate and widens the scope of what constitutes a “parent” for unmarried same-sex couples. Three states — California, Vermont and Washington — have adopted U.P.A. 2017, as the amendment is known.
Share your parenting time, if possible, so the co-parent feels invested in your child’s well-being. “They are always going to be your kid’s other parent and your kid won’t thank you for taking them away,” said Green, the mediator.
Custody and child support are separate legal matters, Van Kooy said, but it’s rare not to address custody because it comes up when you file for support, she said. Legal custody gives you decision-making rights for your child.
Experts say kids do better when both parents are involved. This may also help get you the money you need to make a difference in your child’s life. “Custodial parents who have joint legal or physical custody had a higher child support compliance rate — 51.2 percent — than all custodial parents as a group,” said Timothy Grall, a survey statistician at the United States Census Bureau.
Diane Mehta is the author of “Forest With Castanets” and the mother of a 15-year-old son. She writes about parenting and culture.
Regardless of circumstances, a custodial parent is entitled to financial support from the child’s other parent.