Overview of Child Support
Regardless of whether parents split up or stay together, they owe their children financial support to cover basic needs, such as food, housing, clothing, and an education. Child support amounts are typically based on the parents' income and time spent with the child. For example, a parent who cares for the children less than 50% of the time (the “non-custodial parent”) will usually have to pay child support to the other parent (the “custodial parent”), who spends a greater percentage of time with the children.
Although child support is intended to cover basic needs, it can also be used for optional expenses that will give the child a richer, fuller life experience, such as music lessons, extracurricular activities, and sports camps.
It’s important to remember that child support is a payment that’s owed to children - not parents. Sometimes, parents ordered to pay child support are angry or upset about having to give the other parent money. They mistakenly believe that the money “belongs” to the other parent. If you’ve been ordered to pay child support and you feel this way, keep in mind that you aren't really giving the other parent money; the money you pay for child support “belongs” to your child, who relies on it to survive.
What’s the first step to getting a child support order?
Parents only have to support their own children. That’s why, before child support can be ordered, there has to be a legal decision about who a child’s parents are. When it comes to the child's mother, this is simple, but it can get more complicated when it comes to identifying a child's father.
If you and the child's father were married at the time of the baby's birth, and are now separating or divorcing, this part is easy. The court will “presume” (make a strong legal assumption) that you and your husband are the natural parents of any children born during your marriage, and move to the next phase—deciding the amount of child support.
If you were never married, but you and the baby's father signed an "Acknowledgement of Paternity" at the hospital when the child was born (or any time after that), this acknowledgement will work to establish "paternity" (the legal father-child relationship) in court. An acknowledgement of paternity becomes a legal finding of paternity 60 days after it’s signed.
If you never married your child's father, and he did not sign an acknowledgment of paternity, things will take a little longer. In order to establish paternity under these circumstances, you have a few options. First, you can ask the child's father to voluntarily admit to paternity. If he refuses, you can ask a court to order the father to submit to genetic testing and have the results presented to a judge, who will make the final decision about who the father is.
Once paternity is established, the next step is to determine the appropriate amount of child support.
For more information on how to establish paternity in Colorado, click here for the Colorado Department of Human Services - Child Support Enforcement Portal.
For a link to useful paternity forms, click here for the Colorado Department of Public Health.
How is child support calculated in Colorado?
In Colorado, child support is calculated by applying a mathematical formula called the “child support guidelines.” The guidelines help make support awards uniform and predictable.
Colorado follows the “income shares” method of calculating support, which says that children are entitled to a portion of each parent’s income. The reason for this is a belief that children should be financially supported in the same way they would have been if their parents stayed together.
The guidelines take into account how much time you spend with your children as well as both parents’ gross income. “Gross income” is total income from a variety of sources, including wages, salaries, tips, overtime, pensions, workers’ compensation and unemployment compensation benefits, and Social Security. The formula also includes expenses, such as the costs of child care and health insurance.
All this information is added to “guideline worksheets,” which are forms used to calculate the actual amount of support owed. You can try using the electronic worksheets here, but you’ll have to save them to your computer and know how to use Microsoft Office programs, including Excel and Word. Alternatively, you can access the manual child support worksheets by clicking here, or request that the forms be mailed to you.
Colorado law does have some built-in protections. The guidelines don’t apply if parents have very low or very high incomes. In the case of low-income parents, if the noncustodial parent has monthly gross income between $850 and $1850, then that parent is eligible for a low-income adjustment which will bring down the total award.
Once the award is determined, an order will be filed with the court and mailed to the parties. The order will say how much child support the paying parent has to pay and when the payment is due. Both parents have the continuing duty to keep Social Services updated with current employment and contact information so that payments can be tracked.
When do child support payments end?
The paying parent’s duty to pay child support ordinarily lasts until the child turns 19 or until the month following high school graduation, whichever is later. If a child suffers from a disability that prevents the child from becoming independent or self-sufficient, child support may continue for a longer period of time.
What if the guideline amount is too high?
Colorado law applies a presumption that the amount of the guidelines calculation is fair. But you can still ask a judge for a “deviation,” or departure, from that amount. Deviation requests have to be heard in court and can’t be decided in the administrative process.
To win a deviation request, you’ll have to convince the court that the guideline award is unjust in your case. You’ll need to show the judge there’s a very good reason for a deviation, such as a serious illness or disability that prevents you from working full-time. If you can’t keep up with optional expenses, like cable television, that won’t be enough to win a deviation from the guidelines.
What are arrearages?
If the paying parent stops paying child support, the unpaid amount keeps adding up until it's brought current again. The total amount of unpaid support is called "arrearages."
Having arrearages is a serious problem. If a paying parent falls behind and becomes delinquent in his or her child support payments, there are a range of serious consequences. These can include interception of lottery winnings and tax returns (meaning, the State "intercepts" and takes the funds before they’re paid to the delinquent parent), suspension of driver's license privileges, the attachment of liens to bank accounts and property (for example, cars or land), reporting of the arrearage to the delinquent parent's credit bureaus, and more.
To prevent arrearages, Colorado employs something called an "income assignment." Income assignments occur when the State sends a notice to your employer instructing it to withhold your child support and forward it to the Family Support Registry. Income assignments can also be applied to retirement benefits, worker's compensation, unemployment checks, and most other forms of gross income. Income assignments can last as long as the support order does.
If you don't think you can pay child support as ordered, you should investigate the possibility of a modification as soon as you can.
Can I request a modification of child support?
A modification is a change to an existing child support order. It can be upward (if the receiving parent asks for more money) or downward (if the paying parent wants the payment reduced). To obtain a modification, a parent has to show that there has been a change of circumstances. In Colorado, this is proven when the support order is recalculated using the new figures and there is a change of 10% or more.
Modifications are sometimes granted when a parent loses a job involuntarily or suffers a major loss of income, when a parent or the child's health care insurance changes, or when the custodial and visitation arrangements change and the child spends more time with one parent and less with the other. The key factor is whether the changes result in a 10% upward or downward from the existing child support order.
What if I’m bankrupt?
Federal law says that child support arrearages can't be "discharged," or eliminated, through bankruptcy. This has serious ramifications for paying parents who have fallen behind. If you've gone through the entire bankruptcy process and had all your other debts wiped away, your child support arrearages will still be there and you'll have to pay them or face the consequences.
The Official State Child Enforcement Portal, by the State of Colorado
Official Child Support Forms, by the Colorado Judicial Branch