Written by Avvo Staff

How to get child support

Child support can involve finding the other parent, proving paternity, filing the order, and enforcing or modifying it.

Child support—and child support enforcement—are vital to a child’s well-being. While raising a child is a wonderful experience, it also requires a major investment of time and money. Non-custodial parents are required to pay child support so that one parent doesn’t shoulder that cost alone.

Getting child support can involve administrative processes, judicial processes, or both. Some cases are quick and straightforward, but others are more complicated—especially if paternity or income are disputed.

Step 1: Locating the other parent

Before you can seek child support, you'll need to know where the other parent is. Your state’s child support enforcement agency can often help you locate them for free.

State agencies can use resources such as the Federal Parent Locator Service, credit bureaus, and the postal service to track down uncommunicative parents.

If the state doesn't succeed, you may have to hire an attorney or a private investigator, which can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Step 2: Establishing paternity

If you weren’t married to the other parent when your child was born, and the other parent hasn’t acknowledged paternity, you'll need to establish paternity before child support can be enforced.

Your local child support services agency will typically work with the court to arrange a genetic test. In cases where child support is contested, either parent can request genetic testing.

The cost of genetic testing varies, but the average is around $30 per person. How soon you get the results will depend on the lab—some can have the results in a day or two, while others can take weeks.

Step 3: File a child support order

How you get child support varies by state. Every state has guidelines that determine an appropriate amount of child support based on your child's needs and the other parent's income.

If the other parent agrees to the amount in the guidelines, this step can be completed quickly. If the other parent contests the amount, can't be found, or disputes paternity, the process may take 6 months or more.

The cost of an application for child support is usually free to parents receiving public assistance, and $25-$30 for others. Whether you'll handle the child support process administratively or judicially depends on the child support enforcement procedures in your state.

For example, in Connecticut, the courts are used only when the noncustodial parent objects to the guidelines amount of support. By contrast, California always uses the judicial process.

Mark L. Alexander, a child support lawyer in Seattle, explains the difference between the two this way: "The administrative order process is a little less formal/procedure-ridden than going through court. Either one can result in a legally binding order." Remember that the entry of a court order will always supersede an administrative order.

Step 4: Enforce the child support order

Your state’s child services agency will help you enforce your order. The easiest way is to require the other parent's employer to automatically withhold a certain amount from their paycheck.

Most states require immediate income withholding once an order is issued, so, as long as you know where the other parent works, you should receive your first payment quickly.

If the other parent fails to abide by the child support order, the court can hold them in contempt. The consequences might include fines, jail time, or any of the following:

  • Suspension of driver's or professional license
  • Bank account freezes
  • Liens on property
  • Withholding tax refunds
  • Revocation of passport

While you don't need an attorney to enforce a child support order—your local child support office should be able to help you—the law concerning delinquent child support payments is complicated.

An attorney can help you if the other parent has gone missing, or if you believe they are not truthfully reporting all income.

Step 5: Modifying a child support order

Once you have a child support order, you can typically only change it by filing a motion for modification. To get the court to alter the order, you'll need to prove a substantial change in circumstances in the noncustodial parent's income or the child's needs.

For example, if the noncustodial parent loses a job (not due to quitting or for-cause termination), they may petition the court to lower the amount of support. Of course, parents can always modify a child support order by agreement as well.

If the proposed modification is contested, however, talking to a child support attorney may be a good idea. Modifications to orders can have considerable financial and tax consequences. An attorney can advise you as to the exact effects.

Dealing with the long-term consequences of a child support order

Your child support order will stay in effect until the child becomes emancipated. In most states, that happens when the child reaches the age of 18 or 21. The support order may also end if the child becomes economically independent from the custodial parent before the age of emancipation.

One of the benefits of consulting an attorney is to plan for the financial implications of your child support order. For example, child support payments aren’t tax-deductible for the noncustodial parent, but the custodial parent doesn’t have to declare the payments as income. By contrast, alimony is tax-deductible for the paying parent.

For this reason, some people choose to arrange child support in the form of higher alimony and lower amounts of actual child support. An attorney can help you arrange a financially beneficial support agreement.

If both parties can agree, the child support enforcement process can be affordable, quick, and relatively painless. However, if a parent disputes any key matters, navigating the process might require the help of an experienced family law attorney.

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