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What Is Child Support & How Does It Work?

5 min read
Feb 09, 2024

Navigating child care expenses when two parents dissolve their relationship can be overwhelming and confusing. Child support can help add clarity by figuring out who is responsible for paying those expenses. Specifically, child support refers to payments made by one parent to another (or to a legal guardian) to help raise a child. Child support isn’t paid by state or federal entities, but these entities can help you get and enforce it.

Keep reading to learn how child support works, what it covers, who’s eligible, and how much you can get.

Child support definition

Child support is court-ordered payments that are typically made by the noncustodial parent to the person who has primary custody of the child. It intends to help pay for a child’s living expenses.1 The person with primary custody of the child can be a parent, a legal guardian, or a caregiver. These payments are usually ongoing — for a period of time set by the family court that presides over your case — and are made to the child’s custodian, not the child.

Who is eligible for child support?

The child's primary custodial parent or legal guardian often qualifies for child support. The noncustodial parent, or the one without primary physical custody, is commonly the one responsible for making child support payments. Although, noncustodial parents can also apply for child support to legally establish their parentage.1 (More information on establishing parentage can be found below.)

Certain public assistance recipients may also be eligible for child support. For example, if you receive support from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, Medicaid, and federally assisted foster care programs.1

Parents can be unmarried and still qualify for child support. As long as you can prove parenthood — whether through genetic tests or legal paperwork — you can proceed with a case.

Who pays child support?

When reviewing a child support case, the court decides which individual pays child support.

In most cases, the noncustodial parent pays child support.2

Unless you agree on another form of payment, the child support agency typically places income withholdings on the paying parent’s paycheck. The agency receives the payment directly from the individual’s paycheck and disburses it to the receiving parent.1

How does child support work?

To start the process, apply for child support through your local child support office, or enlist the help of a family lawyer. If you work with an attorney, they can coordinate everything with the caseworker assigned to your case. 

There is typically an application fee of up to $25, which the state or the noncustodial parent may cover. If you’re not in a public assistance program, you might have additional costs, such as legal fees. Your caseworker can help give you an estimate of your costs.1

Open your child support case

Documentation that’s required to open your child support case can include:1

  • Contact information
  • Information about your income, assets, and expenses
  • Children’s birth certificates
  • Child support order, divorce decree, or separation agreement if applicable
  • Records of any other child support payments

Locate the other parent and establish parentage

Once your case is open, the child support agency locates and notifies the other parent. This can be easy if you and the other parent are in contact. If not, the child support office will work with the proper channels to locate the individual and give them notice.

Establishing parentage is a process that proves who the biological parents are. It’s important because most states only require an individual to pay child support for a biological child. However, some states may order an individual to pay child support for a stepchild.2 Once you establish parentage, the case can proceed.

Establish and enforce the order

Child support cases go to family court, where a judge makes a decision. State guidelines help ensure a ruling is fair for both parents and in the best interest of the child. Once the court establishes an order, child support services can help enforce it (if needed), and payments begin according to the order.

Enforcement methods can include wage garnishment, placing a lien on the noncustodial parent's real estate property, intercepting tax refunds, and other actions.3 If you do not receive consistent payments, contact your local child support office for assistance. 

Review and modify the order

Either parent can request that a child support order be modified every three years or when significant life changes occur.1 This includes increasing or decreasing the amount paid or received, as well as suspending or terminating payments. Significant changes in income, custody agreements, a child’s health, or a parent’s health may qualify you to file a motion.4 Any modification must be approved by a judge.

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What does child support cover?

Child support helps cover the cost of a child’s basic living expenses and anything needed to raise them, which can include:2

  • Healthcare
  • Education
  • Food
  • Medicine
  • Clothing
  • Shelter

Each state has its own guidelines determining what child support covers. Some states include things like extracurricular activities, camps, entertainment, and vacations — not just basic needs.2 A family law attorney can help you understand your state’s guidelines on what expenses child support includes.

How much child support can you get?

The court determines the amount and duration of child support payments. The amount of child support can vary based on your unique situation, as well as any state requirements.2

Some of the factors that go into calculating child support payments include:2,4

  • The child’s education and health needs, age, and standard of living if the parents were to remain together
  • The number of children (biological and adopted) in each parent’s home, as well as the number of children in the child support case
  • Each parent’s net monthly income — which may include bonuses
  • Other court-ordered child support that’s currently being paid by either parent

How long does child support last?

Child support payments last as long as the court orders. State guidelines or your unique situation, when the child support order is established, can influence this. Modifying an order can also influence how long payments last. States typically can’t enforce child support payments after a child turns 18 years old.2

What is retroactive child support?

Retroactive child support refers to payments that one parent seeks for child care expenses made between the time of separation and the establishment of a child support order. States may also permit the custodial parent to seek child care expenses for a longer period of time, sometimes as far back as the child's birth.5 Retroactive child support can be helpful if one parent has been bearing most or all of the financial obligations of raising a child after separation. 

Get legal help in your corner

The child support order process can be complex. Having a family law attorney by your side can help ensure a smooth and fair process for all parties involved, so you can focus on what matters — caring for your child or children. If your employer offers legal insurance, it can give you access to a network of attorneys ready to assist you. Check with your employer’s benefits administrator to see if legal insurance plans are part of your employee benefits package.

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1 How It Works,” Office of Child Support Services, 2023. Accessed Feb 9, 2024.

2 Child support,” Cornell Law School, 2022. Accessed Feb 9, 2024.

3How It's Enforced,” Office of Child Support Services, 2023. Accessed Feb 9, 2024.

4Child Support Fact Sheet,”, 2018. Accessed Feb 9, 2024.

5A Practice Guide: Making Child Support Orders Realistic and Enforceable," National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ). Accessed Feb 9, 2024.

Nothing in these materials is intended to be advice for a particular situation or individual. These materials are for general information purposes only.