8 things to know about child support

By Kate Kovats

August is Child Support Awareness Month. To build awareness on an important matter for many families, here are eight things to know about child support.

  1. First, child support legislation and processes vary by state. Here is a brief overview of how it works in North Carolina, where I live and practice family law – and where last year $718 million in child support was paid to support 379,000 children.

2. Typically, there are basic income guidelines that determine if a formula for child support applies to your family, or what divorce lawyers call being “on the guidelines.” In North Carolina, families with a combined annual income of $360,000 or less, are “on the guidelines.” For those families whose income is above the guidelines – above $360,000 in North Carolina, the state is basically saying it doesn’t know how much it costs to support your child. You, your soon-to-be ex, and your lawyers will have to consider lifestyle matters like private school tuition, summer camps, travel and more.

3. If you’re on the guidelines, it’s easy; child support is calculated based on income and the number of overnights for each parent, while taking into account who pays for health insurance for the child or children. Click here to access North Carolina’s child support calculators. If you live in another state, simply do a Google search for your state’s calculator.

4. It’s total gross income that matters (not net). And total means total. Commissions, bonuses, and other deferred income, and even VA benefits, is all income that will be included in the child support calculation.

5. Whether you are on or off the guidelines, you and your ex can always agree to a different – higher or lower – child support figure.

6. Child support is paid up until the second of two things happens: The child turns 18 and graduates from high school. If your high schooler turns 18 during senior year, the parent who pays support will be required to do so until graduation. If your high school grad, turns 18 the summer after graduation, support must be paid up until the 18th birthday.

7. So, what about paying for college? In general, I advise parents to have a plan for how that will work and to communicate it to their children as they approach high school graduation. Remember, you are not obligated under North Carolina child support law to send your child to college. The plan could be the child will work and take out loans. Many parents want to help their children through college. My advice is to plan for and save according to what works for you and trust your child’s other parent to do the same. Of course, you can write into your divorce settlement details about how college expenses will be handled. I don’t advise setting that in stone because what if you can’t fulfill your contractual obligation? You can read more about paying for college when divorced in this article for Kiplinger by my colleague Tonya Graser Smith.

8. Family courts like to adopt a “set it and forget it” approach to child support. For child support to be modified upward or downward, there must be a change in circumstances. An increase or decrease in income does not automatically result in a modification or guarantee a modification. One example of a change in circumstances is the existing child support order has been in place for at least three years and the expected change to it will yield a difference of 15 percent or more.

I could write pages upon pages about child support. But I won’t – and you’re welcome for that. What I will say is what Tonya and I always say: Divorce is complicated. You need a specialist.

And another thing: Try to remember that you and your ex are still on the same team – you’re your child’s team or your children’s team.