Child support is financial support that a noncustodial parent pays to a custodial parent to meet the basic needs of a shared child. This money is paid from one parent to the other, rather than directly to the child, and is separate from any spousal support that might also be paid. Child support can be court-ordered or administratively ordered, but parents can also establish informal agreements between themselves for the payment of support.

If you’re receiving—or paying—child support via a court order, it’s important to understand how those payments are calculated.

Key Takeaways

  • Child support is a type of financial support that’s paid from one parent to another for the care and keeping of a shared child.
  • Child support can be court-ordered or administratively ordered, though parents can also establish agreements for the payment of child support between themselves.
  • Court-ordered child support payment amounts are determined by the income guidelines used by the state where the case is filed.
  • Child support payments are neither tax deductible for the person who makes them nor included as taxable income for the person who receives them.

Child Support Basics

Child support is financial assistance that’s paid by one parent to another for the care of one or more children whom they share. State laws govern child support payments, including:

  • Who must pay child support
  • When it’s required
  • How much child support is to be paid
  • When support payments must end

Every state has different rules for child support. In New York, for example, the law states that both parents are financially responsible for children until the age of 21. You can file a child support case in New York if:

  • You’re a custodial parent (meaning you have physical custody) and the child lives with you most of the time
  • You’re the child’s guardian or caregiver (not a parent) and the child lives with you
  • You’re an emancipated child who doesn’t live with either parent

The Department of Social Services can also pursue child support claims on behalf of children who are living in foster care.

Parents don’t need to be married to one another to file a claim for child support, and there doesn’t have to be a formal custody order in place. Parents don’t need to live in the same state for one party to request child support. However, depending on the state, parentage may need to be established before a child support claim can be filed.

This is a requirement in New York, and it’s usually done by both parents completing an Acknowledgement of Paternity document or filing a court petition. The court can order a DNA test when parentage is unclear or disputed. In the case of same-sex couples, New York law allows courts to use their own discretion in determining parentage.

Talking to a divorce attorney or a family law attorney in your state can help you clarify the rules and requirements for filing a child support claim.

How Child Support Is Determined

Every state sets its own rules for determining how child support payments are calculated. Some of the things that can influence child support include:

  • With whom the child primarily lives
  • How much visitation time the child has with the other parent
  • Incomes of the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent

The race, gender, and sexual orientation of either parent don’t have a direct impact on how much child support is ordered. There are, however, disparities in who pays and receives child support along those lines.

For example, four out of five custodial parents are female. Among those parents, 28.1% are Black women, while 24.1% are of Hispanic origin. Custodial fathers are more likely to be non-Hispanic White men than Black or Hispanic men. The majority of outstanding child support in the U.S. is owed by low-income fathers, including many Black men who are at a disadvantage to meet their obligations due to racial inequalities.

With that in mind, there are different formulas that courts can use to calculate child support payments. They include the income shares model, the percentage of income model, and the Melson Formula.

Income shares model

The income shares model assumes that a parent should receive the same percentage of support from a noncustodial parent that they would receive if both parents lived together. This model takes the incomes of both parents into account when determining how much should be paid. Forty-one states, Guam, and the Virgin Islands use the income shares model for child support calculations.

For example, say you earned 60% of the income in your household, while your partner or spouse earned 40%. As the noncustodial parent, the amount that you would pay would be 0.60 multiplied by a baseline amount for care, as determined by your state. If that baseline amount was $500, then you’d pay $300 per month in child support.

Percentage of income model

The percentage of income model sets child support as a percentage of the noncustodial parent’s income. The percentage that’s used is determined by the state’s guidelines and can be applied as a flat or varying rate. Four states use the flat-rate model for child support determinations, while two states use the varying-rate model.

For example, assume you make $3,000 per month and your state assesses a flat 20% child support rate. You would owe $600 per month using the percentage of income model.

Melson Formula

The Melson Formula is a variation on the income shares model that attempts to ensure that the financial needs of the parents and the child are both met. Delaware, Hawaii, and Montana use this model, while the District of Columbia uses a hybrid model that starts with a varying percentage of income, then reduces it using a formula that’s based on the custodial parent’s income.

Once a child support order is issued, it generally can’t be modified without the court’s approval, based on what’s allowed under state law.

How to Apply for Child Support

Depending on where you live, you should be able to apply for child support with your Department of Social Services or Child Support Services division. You may be able to apply online or in person. When you apply, you’ll need to provide certain information, including:

  • Proof of your identity
  • Proof of income
  • Copy of your child’s birth certificate
  • Photo of the noncustodial parent
  • Verification of marital status
  • Legal documents relevant to your claim—which can include a divorce decree, an affidavit of parentage, a domestic violence protective order, and voluntary agreements signed between you and the noncustodial parent

If English is not your first language—or if you have a disability that prevents you from applying for support online—then your Social Services department should be able to help you with filing a child support claim.

If you’re eligible to receive child support, then the amount that you should be paid is determined using one of the models mentioned above. Aside from income, the court can also consider individual costs of raising a child, including childcare, medical expenses, and insurance and educational expenses.

Once a child support order is established, the noncustodial parent may be able to make payments to the Department of Social Services. It would then distribute them to the custodial parent. Alternatively, your state laws might require automatic wage garnishment for child support payments. You don’t have to include on your taxes child support payments that you receive, and if you’re paying child support, you can’t write it off as a deductible expense.

Failing to pay court-ordered child support could lead to enforcement actions, including jail time and fines.

The Bottom Line

Child support is designed to cover the needs of children after the end of a marital or nonmarital relationship. Navigating who should pay and who should receive child support can be tricky, especially if that issue is also connected to a custody battle. Understanding what your rights and obligations are with regard to providing for the care of children can help if child support is part of your financial picture.