Child Support Laws

Contemplative father holding daughter

In most cases, courts require non-custodial parents to pay the custodial parent a portion of expenses for biological or adopted children. In the United States, child support laws vary by state or Native American tribal affiliation.

Jurisdiction of Child Support

Family courts uphold and enforce child support laws. While the most common form of child support is payment from one parent to another for a biological or adopted child, other cases may require a legal guardian (such as the state) to pay for the support of a child.

Federal law requires each state and tribe in the United States to have its own set of child support laws. You can find the U.S. Government's laws regarding child support in the Code of Federal Regulations. Federal law requires the following from each state:

  • A set of laws governing child support and modification
  • Guidelines for calculating support that include consideration of all parties' incomes
  • Guidelines for caring for the child's health care costs
  • Provisions for guideline reviews every four years
  • Provisions for varying from the standard calculation due to extraordinary circumstances
  • Calculations based on data analysis for real costs associated with child rearing


A number of custodial arrangements exist, ranging from joint custody among parties to foster parenting. Because of this, the courts use certain terminology to standardize child support language.

  • Child support - a term referring only to the responsibility of parents or legal guardians to provide for the financial support of a child, regardless of custodial arrangements
  • Obligor - the person paying the support
  • Obligee - the person receiving the support
  • Child maintenance - another term for child support
  • Transfer payment - a common term for the transfer of support from the obligor to the obligee

Obligor and Obligee

It is not necessary to have been married to your child's other parent to receive child support. In the cases of unmarried parents, you may need to establish legal paternity/maternity before entering into a support order. You may also be eligible to receive child support if you:

  • Are the custodial parent or guardian of a child or children
  • Separated or divorced from your children's other parent
  • Have a biological or adopted child with another individual and you provide primary custodial services
  • Have shared custody of a child but the other parent has a significantly higher income than yours
  • Serve as a guardian for a child

You may be required to pay child support if:

  • You are the biological/legal parent of a child not in your custody
  • You share custody of a child with another person
  • Another adult has primary custody of your child

In some cases, a biological or adoptive parent may not be required to pay child support, if:

  • Parental rights have been terminated
  • The child is 18 (unless he or she has special needs) or an active duty member of the military
  • Your child has been declared legally emancipated

Standardized Calculations

Federal law requires every state to have a standardized calculation for child support. Common factors considered during such calculations include:

  • Income of both parents
  • Number of children
  • Standard health care/health insurance costs

Gathering Financial Data

In order to calculate support, each state agency will need you to gather the following data from both parents:

  • Pay stubs or payroll records for the past two months (or longer)
  • Federal tax returns for the past two years
  • Proof of health insurance costs
  • Proof of extraordinary health insurance
  • Proof of work-related child care costs
  • Proof of educational costs or other costs to be calculated for child support
  • Proof of any deductions such as mandatory union dues
  • Financial information about financial assets such as 401Ks or stock
  • Information about additional income such as dividends, royalties, bonuses, or commissions

While these are general guidelines, each state may require additional financial data, as well.

Special Circumstances

Sometimes, states or tribes may deviate from standard calculations in child support cases due to special circumstances. Circumstances that may affect the amount of the transfer payment include:

  • Financial hardship
  • Educational fees
  • Extraordinary health care costs
  • Child care costs


Laws governing the accountability of the obligor to pay the support and the obligee to spend the payment appropriately on the child vary. For example, some states require the obligee present a full accounting of the child's expenses to the courts, while others assume the money is being spent on the child without requiring documentation. Some states and tribes have a support enforcement division to help obligees obtain support payments, particularly in the case of a non-paying obligor.

Obtaining Child Support

The courts determine transfer payments and child support. Parents can initiate court proceedings to calculate child support via their local family court system. It is not necessary to retain an attorney, although many people prefer to do so. Some states also have provisions allowing parents to initiate child support proceedings through a state run division of support enforcement or the local prosecutor.


Custodial parents receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) must apply for child support in their state, if any is available. Child support payments will be made to TANF to alleviate some of the costs of the program. Parents who do not apply for child support may have their TANF payments reduced by 25 percent. In some circumstances, such as domestic violence, TANF may waive the child support filing requirement. Check with your TANF caseworker to ensure you meet all requirements as they relate to child support.

Order Enforcement

Federal law requires each state to create an enforcement agency, allowing a number of enforcement options for non-payors. Some, such as the IRS collection, may involve additional fees to the payee. These options include:

  • Wage garnishment
  • Credit bureau reporting
  • Federal tax refund deductions (if over $500 in arrears)
  • Federal passport denial (over $2,500 in arrears)
  • Property liens
  • Professional, driving, and/or sporting license suspension
  • Federal prosecution
  • IRS collection (if greater than $750 in arrears)

Termination of Support

Most states terminate support in certain circumstances:

  • The child reaches the age of majority (typically 18) and graduates from high school
  • The child becomes legally emancipated
  • The state terminates parental rights of one or both parents

Finding the Laws for Your State

Since the laws governing support are dictated by the state in which you live, you will need local resources to answer your specific questions. Of course, a local family law attorney can help you navigate the red tape.

Information for Specific States

You can also find the information you need for the following states.

Other States

If your state is not listed above, the following places can help you glean more information about child support laws for your state or tribe.

For the Benefit of the Children

Child support laws exist for the benefit of the children. These laws ensure children can have their financial needs met, in spite of their parents' choices.

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