Orders for child support are one of the key elements of divorce with children, and if anything goes wrong with the arrangement you've made, the consequences can be disastrous for everyone involved. A bad child support order can leave the paying parent unable to cover the cost, the recipient parent unable to make ends meet, and the children of a divorced or never-married couple in poverty and neglected as their custodial parent sacrifices time with them to work a second (or third) job. Getting child support right is vital to everybody in the family, and hammering out a good deal gets a lot easier when you know how child support works and what your options are.
Child Support in America
The U.S. Census Bureau tracks child support statistics nationwide. According to its data, approximately 4.8 million American parents currently pay almost $42 billion a year to support children under 21 who do not live with them. Fathers pay roughly 85 percent of this, and the average father is obligated to pay $5,450 a year, compared with the $3,500 average annual payment from mothers, who represent the other 15 percent of paying parents. The average monthly payment hovers around $430, with a lot of off-the-books support unaccounted for, such as when the noncustodial parent buys things for the children out of pocket, rather than paying the other parent to do so.
Nonpayment of support has been a political hot button for decades, About 90 percent of couples exchanging child support have a formal (and enforceable) order from the court, but of those, only 45.6 percent report full payment of the amount ordered. Another 28.5 percent got some, but not all, of the amount owed, while a full 25.9 percent report total nonpayment. According to the Census Bureau, a whopping $33 billion a year in child support goes unpaid.
Most in-arrears parents indicate a willingness to pay what they owe, but have fallen behind because of unemployment or a reduction of hours at work. If a parent is unable to pay his or her support obligations due to a change in financial circumstance, that parent has the ability to ask the Court to order a change in support. However, the procedure to modify support is long and often times difficult. Meanwhile, the now-unsustainable monthly payments keep piling up, regardless of the parent's ability to pay. If the custodial parent asks the court to maintain the order, the struggle can drag out much longer, with the predictable result that unpaid support accumulates to levels that may never be entirely paid.
Common Ways to Pay Your Child Support
One of the most common forms of child support in America is a personal check paid directly to the custodial parent. While this approach is pretty simple, if anything goes wrong with it, both parents can find themselves in a real mess.
Cash payments, for instance, are untraceable and can leave the paying parent in the position of poring over transaction records and email or text conversations to gather evidence that the required amount was paid. If the recipient parent loses track of the payments — or worse, denies having been paid at all during a contentious divorce — the paying parent may wind up having to pay a second time to stay out of trouble.
Checks create a paper trail, so it's harder to lose track or to misrepresent the payment history, but they have their own issues. Given the gravity of a child support order, and the potential consequences if it's not paid on time each month, even the relatively small risk of a check getting lost in the mail may not be worth it. Those paying by check may want to hand it over in person or mail it with a return receipt request.
Another option is to set up bank draft transfers or pay via a service such as PayPal. The advantages of this method include that the payments are automatically traceable and reportable, and they are also instant.
Demonstrating proof of payment is even easier when the monthly child support payments go through a government agency. Many states now operate online portals where noncustodial parents can authorize withdrawals directly from a bank account or make payments with a debit or credit card. This system helps keep payments regular and reliable by making child support no more intrusive or difficult to manage than an electric bill. The ability to cover child support payments by credit card has another advantage over mailing a check or making direct deposits into a joint account in that it lets you keep current with your child support obligations even in a slow month when you might have trouble writing a check for immediate deposit.
Alternative Child Support Structures
One problem many non custodial parents have with any kind of direct-payment arrangement is that, once the check clears, there's no way to know how the money is being used. Though the numbers nationwide strongly suggest that custodial parents are putting most of their child support money to work supporting the kids, which is of course what it's for, many recently divorced parents do worry that this won’t be the case.
If that's the position you're in, and you, justly or unjustly, worry that your monthly child support payments may not be going to directly support your kids, you do have options.
One of these options is the reimbursement model. In a reimbursement-style arrangement, the paying parent either pays a reduced amount each month or makes no set monthly payments at all. Instead, the custodial parent can present the other party with receipts for purchases and copies of the children's bills, ideally with the kids' expenses highlighted, and be reimbursed for expenses that are probably related to the children's upkeep. This has the advantage that it almost automatically creates a paper trail, and it reassures a suspicious noncustodial parent that the money is going directly to support the children. That reassurance alone makes a reimbursement model attractive, if only because of the way it soothes feathers that may have been ruffled by a divorce, custody dispute and hefty support order.
How to Collect Child Support Payments
If you're a custodial parent who isn't getting the support you need, you have options too. The first, and perhaps the simplest in an uncontested divorce that you are navigating online, is to talk things through with the other parent and come to a good-faith agreement.
If the two of you work well together on the children's issues, this kind of flexible arrangement might be doable. To make it work, each of you can show the other proof of your income and expenses, calculate what the children need and how much each of you can contribute, and then draft an informal written agreement. An agreement you two have negotiated can also take into account all of the little things, such as special expenses for after-school activities or a seasonal drop in income, that standard-issue, court-ordered support tends to overlook. This agreement's terms can usually be altered by mutual consent, just like most divorce terms, and so you both should come away from the negotiation feeling like you're working together to take care of the kids, rather than haggling over money.
If a friendly understanding is not likely or possible in your case, you'll probably wind up in front of a judge, who will assign support based on your state's guidelines, which vary. Some states use a flat percentage of income, and others, for instance, have complex support formulas that consider both parents' income and expenses and prorate support based on several factors.. Once signed by the judge, the child support calculation becomes an order of the court, and failure to abide by its terms can lead to negative consequences.
What Happens If You Fail Make Your Pay Child Support Payments
Regardless of the reason for it, failure to pay all of the ordered child support hurts everybody in the family. Custodial parents, who may have factored the monthly support into their budgets, can suddenly find themselves several hundred dollars short each month. This frequently drives the custodial parent out of the house (and away from the kids) for extra hours of work to make up the shortfall, leaving the children in either day care or under the supervision of other adults. Shortfalls in child support also contribute to the state's welfare rolls. Many custodial parents get some kind of means-tested government aid, such as cash aid, food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance. The cost, to children and to the public coffers, drives a lot of the harsher enforcement penalties on the books.
Falling behind quickly becomes a problem for the parent ordered to pay, as well. In addition to civil collections, where delinquent child support payments are treated just like any other debt and sent to a collection agency that can and will send regular negative reports to the credit bureaus, parents who accumulate back child support can suffer from liens and judgments, which often result in the partial or total seizure of tax refunds, insurance settlements and other windfalls.
It is not uncommon for delinquent parents to suddenly find their bank accounts frozen or their property attached. In some states, such as California, parents who fall too far behind in their child support payments may even have their license to drive suspended or revoked, which can lead to jail time if they get caught driving.
Even more ominously, court-assigned child support is issued in the form of an order, which gives it the force of law. Failure to abide by this order's terms is a civil, or in some cases, criminal offense and carries a real threat of jail. Though debtors' prisons have long been illegal in America, child support is in a legal class by itself, largely because the public rarely complains when tough new laws are passed to crack down on delinquent parents. As a result, civil contempt charges relating to delinquent support may carry sentences of up to 180 days in the county jail. It is not entirely clear how big of an issue this is, but if the national numbers for child support noncompliance are anything to go by, it's potentially an epidemic. One 2009 South Carolina study found that 13.2 percent (13.2 percent!) of inmates in that state's county jails were there solely for not paying child support.
Ms. Poller is a partner at Pryor Cashman, LLP in New York City and in this video she educates parents considering divorce who have children with special needs.
Avoiding Struggle Is in the Children's Best Interest
If child support is an issue in your divorce, then the two of you have one or more kids who need responsible grownups for parents. The divorce has probably been rough enough on the children, even if you have so far avoided struggles over the division of property and custody arrangements. Having two parents go at each other over child support is the last thing your kids need as they adjust to the family breakup.
While most parents know enough to avoid burdening young children with the details of child support disputes, older kids can't help but feel responsible when a parent volubly complains about paying support, or a parent complains about how the other one doesn't pay enough.
If you are the noncustodial parent, you may feel frustrated when you are ordered to pay child support after the Court has awarded the house to your, the car, and spousal support. Try to remember though, that whatever your situation may be, your children need your support. Even if you've wound up paying more than you think you should, it is in the kids' best interest for you to try to shift your focus from what you think is unfair in the divorce settlement, and try to work on re-establishing a productive relationship with your spouse.
Family Law attorney Laura Wasser has seen child support matters tear families apart, both in court and long after the final divorce papers have been signed. That's one of the things that motivated her to start it's over easy; by assisting parents like you learn about your child support options, she hopes to help your family through its most trying time. Browse her other articles about child support to get more details about negotiations, court orders and enforcement options in a do-it-yourself divorce.