The purpose of child support is to ensure that both parents, regardless of their relationship with each other, financially support their children to the best of their ability. Although child support money belongs to the child, it's the responsibility of the custodial parent to use the funds to provide for the child's needs.
Custodial parents have a lot of flexibility in how they can use the money, but there are some basic ways that child support should—and should not—be spent.
Depending on where you live, a judge or child support agency will use either a state calculator or other state-specific guidelines to determine child support for a family with divorced or unmarried parents. When the judge or child services agency calculates child support, the intent is to cover the child's basic needs.
At a bare minimum, a custodial parent should use child support to help those basic needs. Beyond basic needs, and depending on the situation, child support may also be used to pay for other costs associated with raising a child, such as:
Because parents are responsible for providing proper food, clothing, and housing for their children, child support can always be used to cover these necessities. For example, you can use child support money to:
Sometimes a child has costs that the amount recommended by the state's child support guidelines doesn't cover. One of the most common expenses that isn't covered by traditional child support calculations is health insurance.
Most child support orders do, however, include a requirement that each parent pay a certain amount toward a child's medical expenses. Child support calculations normally add a monthly amount for health care to the child support award. Although that amount usually isn't enough to cover extraordinary medical costs, like hospital visits or braces, it's generally enough to ensure that the custodial parent can pay for the child's basic medical insurance.
Also, courts and child support agencies will determine which parent can obtain quality insurance for the least amount of money before deciding which parent should carry health insurance for the child. If the child receives state-sponsored medical insurance, the court won't need to include health insurance in the final calculations.
Another cost often not covered by child support guidelines is one that's unavoidable for many parents who work: child care. In most states, courts split the cost of child care equally between the parents. In other states, judges can take into account factors such as how much each parent makes and how much time each parent spends with the child.
Some parents enroll their children in private school, whether for religious or other reasons. Many states' child support guidelines require that tuition be included in support calculations. If tuition isn't included, though, custodial parents can still use child support to pay the tuition. Child support can also be used to pay for other school-related expenses, such as supplies and field trip fees.
Other examples of expenses that aren't covered by traditional child support calculations include:
Because a court's child support order won't always cover these circumstances, parents might need to work together to create an agreement on how each parent will contribute to the child's special expenses. If the parents can't come to an agreement, they can request that a judge create an order addressing the issue or modify an existing order to address it.
As a general rule, paying parents aren't easily able to dispute how the recipient spends child support. Because custodial parents don't have to keep track of spending, it would be very difficult for paying parents to prove misuse of child support unless it's obvious that the custodial parent is neglecting the child's health, safety, or overall well-being.
For example, if your ex purchased a luxury vehicle while your child went without food and clothing, you could ask the court (or child services) for a child welfare investigation. But, in most cases, courts and child support agencies won't resolve a dispute that arises when a paying parent simply disagrees with a custodial parent's spending habits.
That being said, a few states do have a procedure under which parents receiving support can be ordered to account for how they're using the money, but these procedures aren't used for minor disagreements over the use of child support. For example, some states' laws give judges the discretion to order accountings when appropriate or when the paying parent shows a reason to investigate the custodial parent's use of child support.
Even though paying spouses rarely have the power to successfully challenge how the receiving parent is spending child support, every state has a way for paying parents to request a review of (and possible modification of) the child support order.
In most states, a request for a review or modification won't give the judge or child support agency the power to order the receiving parent to account for the use of the support money. It will, though, trigger a thorough examination of both parents' financial situations and their ability to pay for the child's needs. So, if the amount of child support is no longer appropriate because your ex changed jobs or your child's needs changed, the order can be changed to reflect the new circumstances.
If you and your co-parent can't see eye-to-eye on how child support is being used, consider mediating your dispute. In mediation, a neutral third party will help the two of you understand one another's position. The mediator can't change the child support order but can guide you in discussions to come to an agreement that both of you can live with.
But if you suspect that the custodial parent isn't meeting your child's basic needs—resulting in neglect or even abuse—it's time to seek help. Contact a local family law attorney who specializes in child custody and child support matters or reach out to your state child support agency. Often, your local child support agency can help you figure out your best options. If it becomes apparent that you need to hire an attorney but you can't afford one, find out about getting free or low-cost legal assistance.
Need a lawyer? Start here.