Child Support

Letters spelling out child support

Child Support Basics

Child Support is based on the income of one or both parents and other expenses they pay related to child care, insurance on the children and other dependents, or court-ordered support. It is paid for the benefit of the child. The court may order a non-custodial parent to pay a portion of his or her income to the custodial parent for support of their child. In some cases, where the parents share joint custody, a custodial parent may be ordered to pay child support to the other custodial parent. Child support can be ordered when parents who are married divorce or when an unmarried couple has a child.

The court can also order one or both parents to pay child support to a third party, such as a grandparent who has custody of the child. Payments are usually monthly but can be weekly, biweekly, or made in a lump sum. The amount ordered can be withheld from the paying party’s paycheck and deposited into a central clearing house for payments where it is sent to the receiving party. 

Types of Cases

There are two types of child support cases:

  • Private: In a private case, an action is brought in family court or the appropriate court of the state and the parties are usually represented by private attorneys.
  • Government: State child support enforcement agencies represent custodial parents in court to establish and collect child support. When a child support enforcement agency is enforcing the child support order, it is working under the authority of Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. These cases are often referred to as Title IV-D cases.

How is Child Support Calculated? 

The family court or the appropriate court of the state issues child support orders. Parents can agree to support amounts and duration a in separation agreement.

Federal laws require each state to establish and publish child support guidelines that are presumptively correct, and to review the guidelines every 4 years. While each state must comply with federal law, the states can determine their own method of calculation. Some states have a formula that is specific enough to use a calculator.

Support Models

There are three popular models for calculating the amount of child support someone will pay:

  • Income Shares Model: The income shares model is based on the concept that a child should receive the same proportion of income from the parent as he or she would have if the parents were together.

While the formula may vary by state, essentially you add both parent’s gross incomes together to determine the total family income available. Then using the guidelines determine the amount needed to support the child. This amount is the total child support. Next, the total support obligation is prorated between the parents in proportion to their incomes. As an example, if the parents combined monthly income is $4,000 with the non-custodial parent earning $3,000 and the custodial parent earning $1,000, then the non-custodial parent would be responsible for 75% of the support for the child.

The income shares model is the most popular model of the three models and 39 states have adopted it.

  • Percentage of Income Model: Support is based on the noncustodial parent’s income regardless of the custodial parent’s income. Nine states have adopted the percentage of income model. These states include Illinois, New York, and the District of Columbia.

  • Melson Formula Model: The Melson model has been adopted by Delaware and Hawaii. It modifies the income shares model to factor in other considerations such as the parent’s self-support needs and standard of living. There is a six-step process for calculating the child’s needs.

Health Insurance and Expenses

The court may require one or both parents to provide health insurance for the child if it is available at a reasonable cost. The cost of coverage for the child is calculated as:

  • The cost of adding the child to the parent’s existing coverage, or
  • The difference between self-only and family coverage

The court may order out-of-pocket health care expenses be paid. The order can provide for one or both parents to pay for these expenses. Dental insurance or expenses may also be included. 

Duration of Awards

Typically, Awards or orders continue until the child reaches the age of majority. In most states, the age of majority is 18 years of age. In Alabama and Nebraska, the age of majority is 19 years of age. Mississippi’s age of majority is 21 years of age. If the child is enrolled in high school, child support usually continues past the age of majority until the child graduates from high school. A few states provide for parents to continue supporting a child if a child is enrolled in college.

Title IV-D Cases

Payment Intermediary

In IV-D cases, child support is paid to the State Child Support Collection and Disbursement Unit. The State Child Support Collection and Disbursement Unit then pays support to the custodial parent less a processing fee. Or, if the custodial parent is on public assistance, the State keeps child support payments to offset the assistance the parent is receiving from the State for the care of the minor child.

Monitoring Collections

The State agency monitors compliance and initiates any action for enforcement procedures it considers appropriate. There is no leeway for a former spouse being understanding or trusting that the noncustodial parent will come through following a difficult patch. This means that any disputes must go through the courts. Both parents must keep the State agency informed of his or her residential address. Failure to do so can be considered contempt of court.

The noncustodial parent may pay one or more payments directly to the custodial parent but proof of payment must still be provided to the agency monitoring payments in IV-D cases. 


Child support orders are backed with both State and Federal enforcement powers that have broad authority. Failure to pay child support can result in numerous enforcement actions including.

  • Require payments to be secured by a bond or deed of trust
  • Transfer the title to assets to cover arrearages. Once the title is transferred, the asset may be sold
  • Wage garnishments
  • Seize other income such as tax refunds or dividend payments
  • Revocation of licensing privileges such as hunting and fishing licenses, driver’s licenses, and business licenses
  • Revocation of occupational licenses required by a licensing board that allows a person to engage in an occupation or profession
  • Arrest and jail
  • Contempt of court 
  • Payment of the obligee’s attorney’s fees

If any child support arrearages exist after the obligation to pay monthly ends, they remain due. Failing to pay arrearages as arranged would still be contempt of court even though your child is an adult.

When the amount of arrearage exceeds the Federal Deadbeat Parents Act limit, prison and fines may be ordered.


An order may be modified or vacated due to a change of circumstances of either party. Changes of circumstances may include, but are not limited to the following scenarios:

  • Incarceration of the noncustodial parent
  • Loss of employment
  • Increase or decrease in income
  • Birth of new child

It is very important to petition for a modification of child support orders if circumstances change in ways that make it impossible to pay as currently ordered. It is important to act as soon as you are able because modifications do not change the amount that was due before the modification.

Visit our state-specific pages for more information:

North Carolina Child Support
South Carolina Child Support