The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Child Support

What is child support?

In family law, child support payments (or child maintenance), are payments made by a parent (typically the non-custodial parent) that are court ordered and paid to the custodial parentThe purpose of child support is to provide financial support for a child following the dissolution of a marriage or other relationship, where children are involved.  The child support guidelines that must be followed, will be provided within a separation agreement or divorce decree

Who is awarded child support?

Child support is typically paid to the parent who has been awarded the greater amount of custodial time (i.e. the custodial parent) with the child. Child support laws are based on the idea that raising a child is both a time commitment and a financial commitment for both parents. Nonetheless, simply having a greater amount of custodial time does not automatically translate to being awarded child support. Family courts might consider a host of other factors, including the gross income of both parents, expenses of each household, and the amount of custodial time with the children when determining child support.  The method used to calculate child support depends on the state or jurisdiction where the child custody case is filed.

Financial support is fundamental to the development of a child. These payments allow the parent to give the child educational opportunities and basic items that the child needs. Unfortunately, child support is the most litigated aspect of divorce cases. This is because the majority of issues in a divorce case find resolution through the divorce decree; however, issues with child support can continue for years after the divorce is finalized, largely due to the changing situations with the children and both parents.

How is child support calculated?

Child support calculations vary from state-to-state in the United States.  In other countries, child support laws may be more standardized.

Because each state has its own unique laws and guidelines concerning how child support is to be calculated, United States child support calculations can be overly complex. Each state has a formula (or model) used to determine how much child support a noncustodial parent is required to pay.

What factors are used in child support calculation?

The factors (or variables) used to by family law judges to make child support calculations fall into three different categories:

  • income;
  • time;
  • other expenses.


Note that a parent's past behavior (misconduct) does not influence the amount of child support to be paid.

Income-based calculations vary between states. In some states, like Massachusetts, calculations are only based on the non-custodial parent's income. Other states, like South Carolina, the income of both parent's are factored into the calculation. Indiana assigns each parent a percentage of the living expenses for supporting the child(ren), after they calculate the income of both parents. Child support guidelines for additional expenses, such as ongoing extracurricular activities, child care, and school tuition vary from stat-to-state.

What are the different child support calculation models?

There are three common models that are currently used to calculate child support in the United States.  These are:

The Percentage Model
The percentage model considers only the noncustodial parent's income - not the custodial parent's.  A percentage of that income is used as the basis for the child support calculation.  The most obvious problem with the percentage model is that the custodial parent's income is not considered.  If the custodial parent earns significantly more than the noncustodial parent, the percentage model does not consider that as a factor.  This creates an unfair situation for the noncustodial parent, who must still incur expenses that are suitable for children during their parenting time.

The Income Shares Model
The income shares model of child support takes the income of both parents into consideration.  It essentially adds the income that each parent earns together, to get a total income.  Then it determines the percent that each parent earns in that total income to determine their share.  It also may consider the amount of time with the children that each parent has.

The Melson Model
The Melson model is a variation of the income shares model that looks at the minimum standard of living income before determining child support.  The idea is that if a parent is not able to meet their own basic needs, child support is not a possibility - a parent must be able to support themselves.  While this complicates the calculation, it helps to come up with a more fair and realistic child support obligation.

What happens when child support isn't paid?

Unpaid child support a problem for many custodial parents.  In 2010, a study estimated that 64% of custodial parents have child support payments in arrears.  When this occurs, the custodial parent may take steps to recover the unpaid child support that is owed to them.  It is advisable for the custodial parent to contact their local Office of Child Support Enforcement.  They may ask questions about the last know whereabouts of the noncustodial parent, as well as details about why the situation came about.  The Office of Child Support Enforcement might be able to help custodial parents receive child support, as they are able to garnish wages, places restrictions such as preventing a legal passport, collect a percentage of unemployment compensation, and possibly be an impetus to time in jail for the non-payer.

The issue of unpaid child support can create other issues, as well.  When the custodial parent is owed money, but does not receive it, they must avoid making derogatory statements about the other parent.  Often parents, who find themselves this scenario feel justified in making disparaging statements (parental alienation).

In some cases, parents found to be alienating their child from the other parent, have lost custody rights, even when feeling justified due to the other parent not having met their child support responsibilities.  Situations where child support payments are in dispute should consider the best interest of the child and the child's bill of rights.

Can the custodial parent limit visitation if the noncustodial parent hasn't paid child support?

No.  Sometimes parents who haven't received child support feel justified in limiting visitation for the parent.  A parent's frustration in this situation is understandable; however, the law views issues around child support and visitation separately.  In keeping with the best interest of the child doctrine, the law considers it the right of every child to have a relationship with both parents, if possible. 

Consider a scenario where the non-custodial parent cannot pay child support, perhaps due to loss of a job or another financially straining situation.  If the parent with physical custody attempts to restrict visitation for this, the child ultimately gets put in the middle of the conflict.  Essentially, they become a tool to be used to attempt to enforce payment of child support.  This goes against the entire concept of child-centered divorce parenting.  A child must not suffer or be used as a tool against the other parent, by having their relationship disrupted with that other parent. 

Jurisdictions are emphasizing the importance of parents having a relationship with both parents, whenever possible.  Parenting time with the noncustodial parent is a child's right, and restricting visitation, unless the child is in danger, will be considered by the court as infringing upon the rights of the child to have a relationship with each parent.

Similarly, a noncustodial parent is not legally allowed to suspend paying child support due to their visitations being limited by a custodial parent.  Even if the noncustodial parent is estranged from their child, they still are responsible for supporting their children financially.

Can child support be modified?

The amount of child support to be paid may be reviewed from time-to-time. The rates of inflation, the increment in salaries or loss of job, the amount of custodial time, and the needs of the child are factors that are used to consider if the amount of child support will be adjusted after being reviewed.

A parent that is obligated to pay child support may contest the rule of the family court. If the parent presents a valid case to the court, he or she might be exempted from child support.  If the custodial parent misuses the child support funds, the court may rule that they child support be stopped, and they may also reconsider which parent has custody of the child.

Are child support payments tax deductible?

Unlike alimony payments, child support payments are not tax deductible. The IRS does not permit the parent responsible for paying child support to deduct the payments from their income. Further, the parent receiving child support payments does not have too claim it as income. This is essentially the reverse of alimony, in which the ex-spouse paying alimony is permitted to deduct alimony payments from their income and the ex-spouse receiving alimony must include it as apart of their taxable income.

What are some problems with with child support calculations?

Child support is considered necessary by most of society; however, there are a number of issues with every child support calculation.  In the worst scenarios, child support can have a counterproductive effect by leading to increased conflict between parents and possibly even contributing to parental alienation syndrome.  In most child support cases, one of the parents deems the calculation as "unfair" or "punitive".


Problem:  Large expenses incurred by the noncustodial parent are not considered

Even having the children for a lessor amount of time requires certain fixed expenses such as housing for the children, a vehicle of the children, food for the children, and entertainments expenses.  Child support calculations typically only assume only these expenses are incurred by the custodial parent.


Problem:  The changing financial needs as children get older are not typically considered.

Child support doesn't take the age of the children into consideration.  When the children begin school, the expenses associated with raising the children typically drop, significantly.


Problem:  It creates a win/lose scenario for child custody cases.

Despite the idealist concept that child support is supposed to be for the children, almost everyone that goes through a child custody dispute, views the goal as "winning" custody or "winning" child support.  The evolution of family law has not yet adapted fully to the idea of collaboritive parenting, and as a result, significant litigation expenses result during custody battles, largely motivated so that one parent can get child support.


Problem:  Child support can be used as a weapon in child custody battles.

Countless resources and laws are in effect to force the noncustodial parent to pay child support.  While necessary in many circumstances, it also has the effect of being a weapon that is threatened to be used by the custodial parent in almost every child custody case.  If there is a dispute over the amount of child support, and the noncustodial parent is waiting for a resolution from a judge to determine if it should be adjusted, that noncustodial parent still must pay it, until it is officially changed.  If the noncustodial parent is in arrears, this will likely be used against that parent during the child custody case.




What are the tax rules related to child support? provides an overview of the IRS rules related to child support.
Child Support Calculators by State
Choose the state your child custody case resides in, and pull up the applicable child support calculator.
Child Support Models by State
Every state uses a their own variation of these models to calculate child support.

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