Child support is money paid by the noncustodial parent to the parent who has custody. In joint custody cases, support is determined based on the percentage of time that the child lives with each parent, along with various other factors. Historically, mothers had custody and fathers paid child support, but today distinctions are made not by gender but by the best interests of the child. Child support is designed to provide the child with the benefits of both parents’ income.

Establishing Paternity

Before the issue of child support can be addressed, the identity of the child’s father must be determined. In the case of unmarried parents, this can be established in two ways. The father may voluntarily sign an Acknowledgment of Paternity form, which serves as a binding acceptance of paternity. Alternatively, a paternity test may be taken, either voluntarily or by court order.

Fatherhood may also be presumed in several instances, depending on the laws of the state. If the man was married to the woman at the time of conception or birth, if he agreed to put his name on the birth certificate, or if he welcomed the child into his home and presented the child as his own, paternity is often presumed.

Generally, a stepparent does not have an obligation to support stepchildren unless he or she adopts them. However, in certain states, if the couple separates, the stepparent may sue for visitation rights under equitable parent laws. If visitation rights are granted, he or she may be held liable for paying child support.

Child Support Obligations

Each state is free to set its own guidelines regarding child support. The goal is to provide the child with the benefits of both parents’ income to provide the standard of living that was present prior to the divorce. Therefore, child support is based on numerous factors, including the child’s needs, the income of both parents, and the pre-divorce lifestyle of the family.

Even if the custodial parent makes significantly more money than the noncustodial parent, a child support obligation will likely exist. This is because the court continues to assume that the child should have the benefit of both parents’ combined income. When calculating the ability to pay, the court will take into account basic deductions from the parent’s salary, but not bank debts and other lower-priority obligations.

Enforcement of Child Support Agreements

Enforcing child support has become a hot topic in recent years and is now the responsibility of both state and federal government agencies. If the noncustodial parent cannot be found, state and federal parent locator services may be able to help. If the payments become delinquent, possible remedies include wage garnishment, freezing of tax refunds and bank accounts, and even sale or seizure of property.

If the noncustodial parent is unable to pay, he or she may file for a temporary or permanent reduction in child support. The matter must go before a court, which will determine the exact nature of any changes to the agreement.