Both of a child's parents, whether they're married or unmarried, have a duty to provide monetary support to that child. You might receive a request from the other parent for child support in the form of formal court documents or administrative papers from a state agency. If this happens, there are several important steps you should take in order to ensure that your rights are protected.
All parents have a legal obligation to provide support for their children. If you receive any documentation from a court or state agency indicating that a request for child support has been filed, this means the other person named in the documents is claiming that you both have a child together and that you're therefore responsible for contributing to that child's support.
A request for support doesn't automatically mean that the court will grant that request. For instance, you won't have to pay support if you can prove that you aren't the child's parent (more on that below).
A parent can request child support as part of a divorce case or as part of a separate proceeding (commonly referred to as a paternity case) when parents are unmarried. If the request is part of a divorce case, it will typically be included in the initial paperwork filed when the case starts. In a paternity case, a parent may file a separate petition requesting child support.
Either way, you and the other parent will submit and exchange financial information, which will be used to calculate the amount of child support under your state's child support guidelines. If you don't agree with the other parent on a support amount, you'll eventually need to appear for a court hearing (more below on those issues).
Unmarried parents may also submit requests for child support through their state's or tribe's child support agency. Typically, a parent will first apply for services from the agency. After reviewing the information provided (including financial information), the agency will contact that parent and assist with any further steps for getting a support order through the court.
Some agencies might begin with an administrative process. This will typically include a meeting with both parents and an agency representative to try to work out an agreement. Also, some agencies (such as Ohio's Office of Child Support) have a procedure for establishing an administrative child support order. In that situation, both parents generally have the right to object to the administrative order in court.
Contact your local child support agency to learn more about the process in your state.
After a request for child support has been submitted, you'll receive a copy of the documents that were filed. These could come in the form of a document labeled as a "petition" or a "complaint" for child support, informing you that a child support case has been opened and detailing what the other party is requesting.
If this request is not part of an ongoing case (like a divorce or paternity case), another document (commonly known as a "summons") will also be included with the petition or complaint. The summons will tell you what you need to do next and when you have to act. It's critical that you read all of the papers closely so you know what your next steps are—and don't miss any crucial deadlines.
The summons will typically provide a deadline for filing an answer to the petition or complaint for child support. If you don't agree with what the other parent is asking for, it's particularly important to file an answer by the deadline, responding to each item in the request. Otherwise, you could lose your right to object, and the judge may order you to pay support in the requested amount without considering your financial situation.
Most courts provide downloadable versions of the forms you'll need on their website. You might also go to the court clerk's office to get copies of the forms and assistance with filling them out and filing them with the court. Court clerks may not give you legal advice, but they might direct you to a self-help center.
You should also begin gathering your financial information, as this will be important for determining how much child support you might owe. Some courts will have a specific financial affidavit form that you'll have to complete, which will list your monthly income, expenses, debts, and any assets you have. If this is the case, you'll usually need to provide some sort of supporting documentation, such as your most recent pay stubs, a W-2 or 1099, or tax returns.
If you're not sure what's required, ask the court clerk's office or state agency handling your case what documents they'll need. Having these documents ready in advance can make the process move much more quickly.
If you and the other parent were never married and you aren't sure the child is yours, you can request genetic testing. The court will then order you, the other parent, and the child to take a DNA test. If a state agency is involved in the case, that agency can help coordinate the testing for you.
It's important to seriously consider having a DNA test done if you have any doubts regarding a child's parentage. If you forgo this step and agree that you're the child's parent, you'll be obligated to pay child support. Once you make this decision, it's extremely difficult to change your mind later on.
Most parents reach an agreement on how much child support one of them will pay. If you agree that you owe support, and you agree with the other parent on the amount, the two of you can prepare a written agreement, sometimes referred to as an "agreed order," "order for child support," or "stipulation."
To come up with a support agreement, you'll typically start by calculating the amount of child support under your state's guidelines, using a worksheet or similar form (which you should be able to get on the court's website or from the court's self-help center). The specific formulas vary from state to state, but the calculation is primarily based on one or both parents' net income. It may also include other factors such as the amount of time the child spends with each parent and health insurance costs.
If you and the other parent agree on a support amount that's different than the result of that calculation, your agreement should spell out the reasons the guideline amount would be inappropriate or unfair. A judge will need to approve your agreement—and won't do so unless the support amount meets your state guidelines or qualifies for one of the legal exceptions for departing from the guidelines.
There are many benefits to agreeing on a child support amount rather than fighting about the issue in court. If you can't reach an agreement and are arguing for an amount of support that's lower than what's calculated under the guideline, you'll need to gather and present the right kind of evidence to convince a judge that applying the guideline would be inappropriate or unjust in your situation. And if you choose to hire an attorney to represent you for the hearing—which is always recommended if you can at all afford it—the process will also be expensive.
After considering all of the evidence presented at the hearing, the judge will make a decision and issue an order setting a child support amount.
If you don't respond to a request for child support by the deadline, the judge or state child support agency might order you to pay support without your input, even if you believe the child isn't yours or the other parent provided incorrect estimates (or no information at all) about your finances
That's why it's important to respond promptly to any requests for child support so that the judge or state agency can take into account your income, expenses, and any additional factors you wish to bring up.
If a judge orders child support and you don't pay, there are a variety of methods the state can use to enforce child support, including suspending or revoking your driver's license, withholding some or all of your tax refunds, or even freezing your bank accounts. If your income changes and you're having difficulty paying the court-ordered child support, you need to file a motion (a formal written request) with the court to ask for a change in the amount of support. (You might be able to make this request through the child support agency.) Until there's a new court order changing or ending your obligation to pay child support, the judge will expect you to continue following the original order.
If you can't reach an agreement with the other parent regarding child support, and you believe that you're entitled to pay an amount below the guideline level, you should speak with an attorney to see if you might qualify for deviating from the guideline. You should also speak with an attorney if you want to contest the results of DNA tests, as this can be a complex issue to address in court.