Child support frequently asked questions (FAQ) for general child support issues and collection enforcement cases.
- How are child support payments made?
- How do courts decide the amount of child support?
- How will the court determine support if I have children by different mothers?
- What if I cannot afford to pay the amount outlined in the child support guidelines?
- Can the court determine child support if I fail to appear in court?
- How can the court determine the amount of support when they don't know my income?
- Why is the amount I owe greater than my weekly child support amount?
- How do I decrease my child support payment?
- Why can't I just pay for clothes or diapers instead of paying the child support agency as required by the court order?
- What if I lose my job or I am unable to pay child support?
- Do states offer any services to help me get a job so that I can pay my child support?
- Can I be put in jail for not paying child support?
- Am I still responsible for child support while in jail?
- My child support payment was reduced while I was in prison. Will it increase when I get out?
- How do I get custody of or visitation with my child?
- Does the court consider domestic violence before making custody or visitation decisions?
- Can I refuse to pay court-ordered child support if the custodial parent interferes with my visitations?
- Does my not paying my child support affect my right to see my child?
- What else can happen if I do not pay my court-ordered child support?
- Can I sue for back support even though I've left home?
- Can I collect child support if the parent lives in another country?
- Can Social Security benefits be garnished for child support obligations?
Up 1. How are child support payments made?
There are only two primary methods of paying child support:
- Paying the custodial parent with cash, check, or by direct deposit.
- Court-ordered wage garnishment: a check is sent to the local child support registry or the state disbursement unit.
Note 1: A court can order your employer to take money out of your paycheck for child support or medical support and if that happens, the employer may also be able to charge a fee (usually $10 each month) to withhold money from your paycheck for child support.
Note 2: Federal law prohibits employers from discriminating against you because of the child support withholding procedure!
Up 2. How do courts decide the amount of child support?
Most states have formulas to calculate the amount of child support the non-custodial parent should pay based on your net income each month.
Typically the amounts are:
- 20 percent for one child
- 25 percent for two children
- 30 percent for three children
- 35 percent for four children
- 40 percent for five children
- No less than 40 percent for six or more children
Special rules apply in cases of split or joint placement or multiple children in different households.
In some states, if a court believes that you are not making as much money as you should, the child support amount may be based on your earning potential rather than your current income.
Up 3. How will the court determine support if I have children by different mothers?
A different formula may apply to determine the amount of support when you have children in different households. The rules are quite complicated so it is important that you let the judge know that you support children with different mothers.
Up 4. What if I cannot afford to pay the amount outlined in the child support guidelines?
You may ask the court to award less, but you will need to convince the judge that the guidelines are unjust or inappropriate in your case. The judge will look at many factors such as:
- age and needs of the child(ren);
- child care expenses incurred by you or the custodial parent in order to work;
- factors consistent with the best interest of the child.
Many states allow the parties to sign a written agreement that differs from the child support guidelines. If the court agrees that the amount of support serves the best interest of the child, it will be entered as an enforceable order of the court.
Up 5. Can the court determine child support if I fail to appear in court?
Yes! The court can and will order child support without you being present.
Up 6. How can the court determine the amount of support when they don't know my income?
Generally, the support order will be based on you having a job that pays the federal minimum wage and working 40 hours per week.
Up 7. Why is the amount I owe greater than my weekly child support amount?
If you've fallen behind then you need to pay an additional amount to cover what's past due. In some states you will also be charged interest per year on any past due child support. If you are the father, you may also be charged with the costs of the mother’s medical bills during her pregnancy, the child’s health care expenses, the costs of paternity tests, attorney’s fees, and other costs.
In addition, your employer may be charging you an administrative fee for taking money from your paycheck to send to the support collection unit.
Up 8. How do I decrease my child support payment?
You must obtain an order from the court amending your support order. If both parties agree to change the amount of child support it is much easier. However if the custodial parent objects or receives welfare benefits, or the judge does not think the change is in the best interest of the child, your request may be denied.
You must convince the court that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that affects your ability to pay child support.
Some states may grant your request if it has been 3 years since the child support order was created or modified and the amount you pay differs from the amount (usually 20% or more) you would pay based on your current income according to the child support guidelines.
WARNING! The child support judge cannot reduce back payments you owe. Many non-custodial parents mistakenly believe that, if they get behind at a time when they are legitimately unable to make a payment, what they owe can later be reduced or discounted by the court. This is not the case!
Up 9. Why can't I just pay for things such as clothes or diapers, instead of paying the money through the child support agency as required by the court order?
Giving your child (or the custodial parent) something directly is considered a gift and you will still owe the full amount of court ordered child support to the support collection unit.
Up 10. What if I lose my job or I am unable to pay child support?
Notify the court immediately if you lose your job, make less money than you used to, or become physically disabled and unable to earn an income. However, it is not enough to just tell the court clerk or Child Support Division, you must obtain an order from the judge to temporarily or permanently reduce or eliminate the amount of future payments. (see question 8 warning)
Up 11. Do states offer any services to help me get a job so that I can pay my child support?
Your State Attorney General’s Child Support Division can direct you toward skills training and job placement services.
Child support agencies may also help with referrals to education or literacy classes and counseling services (substance abuse, parenting skills, etc.) Some courts may order parents, who are behind on their child support payments, to take part in one or more of these services. If you have been ordered to attend any of these programs and you do not complete them, your driver’s license may be suspended!
Up 12. Can I be put in jail for not paying child support?
Yes! Most states have laws that allow you to be arrested and placed in jail for up to six months for “contempt of court” (not paying child support). You may also be fined for each violation and have to pay attorney’s fees and court costs as well.
You have the right to be represented by an attorney throughout a contempt proceeding free of charge if you can prove that your income is very low or that you have no income and the result of the hearing is likely to place you in jail.
WARNING! If you are criminally prosecuted and imprisoned for nonpayment of child support, this is a felony conviction and is sufficient to deport someone who is not a citizen of the United States.
Up 13. Am I still responsible for child support while in jail?
Yes! Child support continues while you are in jail so you should petition the court for a reduction in the amount based on what you can earn while in jail or in prison. (see question 8 warning)
Up 14. My child support payment was reduced while I was in prison. Will it increase when I get out?
Release from prison is considered a material and substantial change in circumstance so the court must change your child support order. This means it is highly likely that the amount you pay in child support will increase to reflect your new earning capacity.
Up 15. How do I get custody of or visitation with my child?
You will need a court order to determine custody and visitation arrangements. It's best if the parents make a custody and visitation arrangement between them and then ask the court to provide a legal order for that arrangement. If the court believes that the arrangement you have made is not in the best interest of the child, the court may ask you both to come up with another arrangement or may make an arrangement that the court believes is in the best interest of the child.
If the parents cannot come to an agreement, the court will determine custody and visitation arrangements for the child. The court considers all facts relevant to the best interest of the child such as the wishes of the parents, the wishes of an older child, or any other matter that the court feels affects its decision as to what is in the best interest of the child.
Up 16. Does the court consider domestic violence before making custody or visitation decisions?
Yes, the court must look at all factors relevant to the best interest of the child including whether either parent engaged in or if there have been allegations of domestic abuse of the other parent or the child and if there has been any instance of child abuse.
Up 17. Can I refuse to pay court-ordered child support if the custodial parent interferes with my visitations?
No! You must pay your court-ordered child support regardless of whether or not you have access to the child for visitation.
Up 18. Does my not paying my child support affect my right to see my child?
Child support and visitation are separate issues so not paying child support should not affect your ability to see your child.
Up 19. What else can happen if I do not pay my court-ordered child support?
In many states the court can:
- Order your picture be posted in private and public locations and in the newspapers;
- Revoke your driver’s license;
- Taking your tax refunds;
- Add interest to past-due child support
- Deny occupational licenses;
- Deny state loans or grants;
- Refer you to private collection agencies
- Report you to a consumer credit reporting agency;
- Place you in jail.
Up 20. Can I sue for back support even though I've left home?
I'm often asked if a parent can be sued for back child support even after the child has left the home. A typical question, "I'm 25 years old and my father owes my mother over $25,000 in back child support. Can I or my mother still collect on this money even though I no longer live at home?"
The answer depends on your state's Statutes of Limitation laws. Many states treat a child support order like a judgment thus back support can be collected until the Statute of Limitations on a judgment expires. In other states, the statute of limitations expires when the child reaches the "age of majority" typically 18 (19 if still in high school).
Up 21. How can I collect child support if the non-custodial parent lives in another country?
Recent law gives the Federal government authority to make agreements with other countries so the Department of State is negotiating with several countries to establish agreements leading to federal declarations of reciprocity.
Many individual States already have agreements with foreign countries to collect child support. Contact your State Child Support Enforcement (CSE) Office to learn if there is an agreement with the country in which the non-custodial parent lives.
If there is an agreement, you can work with the CSE Office to enforce the obligation. If the non-custodial parent has assets in this country, such as bank accounts or property, or is employed by a business with an office in the United States, it may be possible for a CSE office to pursue child support enforcement on your behalf.
If the non-custodial parent is in a country that has no agreement in your state and has no assets in this country, the following steps may help to secure support for your child(ren):
1. The Office of Overseas Citizens Services in the Department of State, Room 4817, Washington, D.C. 20510, has information about the legal systems of various nations and can provide a listing of attorneys in foreign counties who might be hired to assist with child support enforcement matters.
2. Have your child support order authenticated by the consul of the foreign country in the United States and translated into the official language of the foreign country.
3. Contact the foreign attorney and ask him/her to try to enforce the child support order through the foreign court. Also, State CSE Agencies certify child support arrearages of more than $5000 to the Secretary of Health and Human Services, who, in turn, transmits the certification to the Secretary of State for denial, revocation or limitation of passports.
For more information, visit the State Department web site on international child support at http://travel.state.gov/
State Child Support Enforcement (CSE) agency telephone numbers and addresses:
CSE agency web site links are available at:
Up 22. Can Social Security benefits be garnished for child support obligations?
Social Security benefits are not assigned to a wage earner until his retirement or death therefore, these funds cannot be released ahead of time to provide support payments to a child whose parent is not fulfilling a child support obligation.
However, once the benefits are assigned, the Social Security Administration must honor an order of garnishment issued by a court or other proper jurisdiction.
Under the Social Security Act, social security benefits may be garnished when an action is brought to enforce a legal obligation which the beneficiary has to provide child support or alimony payments.
Additionally, a garnishment can be placed against a beneficiary's social security check once the child has passed the age of 18.
Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI) benefits cannot be garnished for child support. However, a judge might consider the income from SSI when setting child support. For more information about this, you can check the Social Security Administration site at: http://www.ssa.gov/