If you think child support is a matter for you and your ex to work out in private, think again. Even if the two of you agree on how much each of you will spend, you have to get the family-court judge to approve the terms. The judge's decision will hinge on federal and state formulas for calculating how much the two you should pay.
The Child's Needs
The first priority for the courts is to see that your children's needs -- food, shelter, day care, clothing, education, medical care -- are all taken care of. Each state sets its own rules, provided they meet federal guidelines. One guideline is that if one parent makes 75 percent of the family after-tax income, she usually pays for 75 percent of the child's needs. Your state may adjust this depending on the amount of custodial time you and your spouse provide.
You and your spouse will have to fill out detailed financial worksheets for the judge to figure out who should pay what. If one of you has a lot of extra expenses -- credit-card bills, an expensive home, tuition -- that may not matter. The law rates child support as a higher priority than other debts and obligations; many states don't even consider other expenses when dividing up child-care costs. If one of you pays child support for children of a previous marriage, the judge may take that expense into consideration.
Raising a child means lots of responsibilities beyond the basics. Your child may need extra medical care beyond what's covered by your or your spouse's insurance. He may have to pay for extracurricular activities. If he wants to go to private school or college, he'll probably need financial help. State rules can be more flexible on who pays for these expenses. If you and your spouse get to choose, dividing up the cost proportionally, like other expenses, is a simple solution. If the two of you can't agree, you can ask the judge for a ruling.
If your income changes drastically -- a new job with better salary, a permanent disability that leaves you unemployable -- one or both of you may want to renegotiate how much child support you pay. Even if you agree on a fair revision, you still need the court to sign off any change. If you can't come to agreement, one of you can petition the court to require the change. When the change is significant -- more than 20 percent, for instance -- the state may mande you return to court for a decision.
- Nolo: How Do Courts Calculate Child Support?
- Pennsylvania Code: Support Guidelines
- LawHelpMN.org: Child Support Basics
- Nolo: Will the court consider high living expenses such as loan payments and income taxes when determining one's ability to pay child support?
- Nolo: I Think Our Existing Child Support Order Is Unfair. How Do I Change It?
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.