child support

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Child Support: An Overview

Child support refers to the sum that the noncustodial parent must pay to the custodian. This sum serves as a parental contribution for the child's basic living expenses, such as food, clothing, shelter, health care, and education. When a court orders a parent to pay child support, the parent must pay directly to the child's custodian rather than directly to the child. States generally do not impose an obligation to pay support for a child after that child has reached the age of 18.

An individual, however, only has a legal responsibility to support one's own biological children. Thus, a court cannot order an individual to pay child support for a stepchild, subject to the caveat that the individual did not formally adopt the stepchild. While the vast majority of states adhere to this rule, a few state statutes differ with regard to stepchild support. To determine the law in a particular jurisdiction, see state laws.

Trial courts determine the amount of the periodic installments for the parent to pay. The amount varies between cases, taking into account the unique circumstances of each case. Circumstances include the child's age, the health and educational needs of the child, and the standard of living that the child would have enjoyed if the family had continued living together. States differ on the exact methodology for calculating the amount of child support owed. Generally, however, courts will make specific findings regarding both the custodial and noncustodial parent's net monthly income. Many statutes require a parent to pay a set percentage of the parent's annual salary. Some statutes also require parents to pay a percentage of any bonuses received as well. The Uniform Marriage and Divorce Act requires parents to pay an amount reasonable or necessary to the for the child's support without regard to marital misconduct. Factors in determining reasonableness or necessity include the child's financial resources, the custodial parent's financial resources, the standard of living the child would have had if the marriage remained intact, the physical and emotional condition of the child and the child's particular educational needs, and the noncustodial parent's financial resources.

In addition to the periodic support payments, a court may also order the noncustodial parent to make contributions to future medical and dental expenses, vacation and camp expenses, and religious or private school costs. Jurisdictions are split regarding whether a noncustodial parent owes contributions to an 18-year-old college student seeking enrollment at a higher educational institution.

Jurisdictions also differ about whether the death of an obligor extinguishes the obligor's future child support obligations.


Congress created the Federal Parent Locator Service partly to enforce child support obligations. The Service permits any authorized individual to obtain and transmit information regarding an individual under an obligation to pay child support or to whom another owes a child support obligation. Some states permit courts to impose wage withholdings on obligors in non-compliance. This process requires the employer to withhold a certain portion of the obligor's wages and turn them over to the obligee. If the employer fails to adhere to the order, the employer may be subjected to penalties. Courts also can hold the non-complying obligor in contempt of court, which may require that the non-complying obligor pay attorney's fees and court costs.

Federal Material

U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes
  • 28 U.S.C. § 1738A - Full Faith and Credit Given to Child Custody Determinations
  • 42 U.S.C. § 651 - Child Support Enforcement Act
  • 25 U.S.C., Ch. 21 - Indian Child Custody (See especially Subchapter I)
  • CRS Annotated Constitution
Federal Regulations
  • 45 C.F.R. ch. III - Office of Child Support Enforcement

State Material

  • Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction Act (adopted in all 50 states plus the District of Columbia)

Key Internet Resources

  • Administration for Children & Families
  • Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement
  • Family Law Organization
  • The Divorce, Alimony, & Custody Reporter
  • Child Support Resource Directory

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]