Child Support Laws in Virginia

Learn how child support works in Virginia, including how to calculate support, when judges may depart from the state's guidelines, how to change or enforce in your existing support order, and more.

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If you have children and are getting divorced, child support is one of the issues you won't be able to avoid. Virginia, like all other states, has guidelines that are intended to give parents and courts a consistent, fair way of deciding on the appropriate amount of child support.

The guidelines use a complicated mathematical formula to calculate support. The state offers some resources for parents (more on that below). But before you start, it will help to understand how Virginia's child support guidelines work, including what you'll need to do the calculations and when a judge might order a different amount than the number resulting from those calculations.

Who Pays Child Support in Virginia?

Both parents—whether married to one another or not—have a legal duty to support their children. When parents are divorcing (or were never married), Virginia's guidelines calculate a total child support obligation and divide it between the parents (more below on how that works). Then, the parents' child custody arrangements will largely determine which of them will pay child support.

In the traditional set-up, one parent has sole physical custody of the kids (the "custodial parent"), and the other, noncustodial parent pays child support. These days, however, more and more parents have less traditional parenting arrangements, with both parents taking an active role in raising and providing homes for their kids. The guidelines include special formulas for parents who have shared custody (meaning the kids stay with each of their parents for at least 90 days out of the year) or split custody (meaning each parent has physical custody of at least one of the couple's children). These formulas will calculate not only the amount of the child support obligation, but also which parent will make support payments to the other. (Va. Code § 20-108.2 (2024).)

It's important to point out that just because one parent is making child support payments, that doesn't mean the other parent isn't paying their fair share. The guidelines assume that parents who are receiving support are meeting their own portion of the support obligation by paying directly for daily expenses when the children are living with them.

How Virginia's Child Support Calculation Works

Virginia's child support guidelines use what's known as the "income shares model," which is meant to ensure that children have the benefit of both parents' earnings, and that the overall support obligation will be fairly divided according to the parents' relative financial situations.

The guidelines include a table (or "schedule") that shows the basic, total child support obligation, depending on the parents' combined monthly income and how many children they have. The parents will be responsible for their share of that total obligation in proportion to each one's share of their combined gross incomes. For instance, if the noncustodial parent's income is 60% of their combined income, that parent would be responsible for 60% of the total support obligation (not counting adjustments and credits, as explained below)

Virginia's guidelines also spell out what counts as income, as well as allowed deductions and adjustments to the basic support obligation. (Va. Code § 20-108.2(B) (2024).)

What Counts as Income in Virginia's Child Support Calculations?

When you're filling in the worksheet to calculate child support, you'll need to know each parent's monthly gross income, which includes income from almost any source, including:

  • wages, commissions, bonuses, severance pay, and unemployment compensation
  • self-employment, business, or rental income
  • pensions, Social Security benefits, and other retirement pay
  • workers' compensation and disability insurance benefits
  • dividends and other investment income
  • spousal support (alimony) received, whether from the co-parent in the current case or from another ex-spouse, and
  • gifts and prizes.

However, income does not include public assistance benefits (including SSI) and support payments received for a child from another relationship.

The worksheet calculations allow certain deductions from income, which aren't necessarily the same as those on your income tax returns. They include:

  • reasonable business expenses and half of self-employment income
  • spousal support being paid under a court order, and
  • support for a child from another relationship.

(Va. Code § 20-108.2(C) (2024).)

Adjustments to the Child Support Calculation

Virginia's guidelines also include adjustments to the basic monthly child support obligation (from the schedule) for:

  • the cost of health care coverage for the child (including vision and dental), and
  • the cost of child care required because of the custodial parent's employment.

Those expenses are split between the parents, and the parent who actually pays them gets a credit. (Va. Code § 20-108.2(E), (F) (2024).)

When Child Support May Differ From the Guideline Amount

Virginia law presumes that the amount of support calculated under the guidelines is correct. But judges may order a different amount in some cases if they decide that the guideline amount would be unfair or inappropriate. Before making that decision, judges must consider all of the circumstances that are relevant to the child's best interests and the parents' ability to provide support, including:

  • the parents' earning capacity, debts, financial resources, and special needs
  • the parents' child custody arrangements, including the costs for the child's travel between the parents
  • financial support that either parent is providing for other family members
  • the child's standard of living during the marriage
  • imputed income to a parent who is voluntarily unemployed or underemployed (except in certain circumstances)
  • the child's special needs resulting from a physical, emotional, or mental condition
  • court-ordered payments for the child's benefit, including life insurance and education expenses
  • debts that either parent has taken on for the child's benefit
  • the parents' extraordinary capital gains, such as from the sale of the marital home
  • whether either parent received income-producing property as a result of the division of the couple's marital property in their divorce
  • any independent financial resources the child has, and
  • tax consequences, such as those related to the child tax credit, exemptions, and child care credit.

(Va. Code § 20-108.1 (2024).)

Can Parents Agree on a Child Support Amount?

You're always free to work out an agreement with your co-parent about child support. However, you'll need to submit your agreement to the court for a judge's review and approval, so that it can become an official court order. If you've agreed on an amount of support that's different than the amount calculated under the guidelines, you should be prepared to explain the reasons. The judge will consider the factors for deviations (discussed above) to determine whether the agreed amount better serves your child's best interests.

Also, you may not agree to end a parent's duty to support a child, and your agreement may not strip the court of its authority to change or enforce child support orders.

(Va. Code § 20-108.1 (2024); Slonka v. Pennline, 440 S.E.2d 423 (Va. Ct. App. 1994); Shoup. v. Shoup, 556 S.E.2d 783 (Va. Ct. App. 2001).)

How to Apply for Child Support

When you're filing for divorce in Virginia, child support will be handled as part of the divorce process. If you aren't married to your child's other parent, you may request child support by applying for services with the Virginia Department of Social Services - Division of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE), on the MyChildSupport portal. The DCSE can also help you locate a missing parent or establish your child's paternity, if that's necessary.

Collecting and Enforcing Child Support

When the parent who's paying support is employed, child support is usually paid through an income withholding order. That way, the payments are taken out of the parent's paychecks. When income withholding isn't appropriate (such as for self-employed parents), Virginia offers various payment options, including online or at kiosks.

If you're having trouble collecting child support, you may apply for services with the DCSE to get enforcement help. Depending on how much the other parent owes in back support, the agency has several ways of enforcing child support orders, including:

  • getting an income withholding order, if there isn't already one
  • getting the support payments withheld from unemployment benefits
  • reporting the debt to consumer credit agencies, which could hurt the delinquent parent's credit rating
  • intercepting tax refunds and other government payments
  • issuing orders to have money taken from the delinquent parent's bank accounts
  • seizing and selling the parent's property, or placing a lien on property so that the parent can't sell or borrow money on it until the debt is paid off
  • getting the delinquent parent's driver's license suspended, and
  • asking the court to require the parent to turn in any professional or recreational licenses.

You also have the option of going directly to the court to file a "motion to show cause," asking the judge to find the delinquent parent in contempt of court, which could lead to fines and even jail time.

Modifying Child Support in Virginia

You have the right to request a review of your support order by the DCSE every three years. If it's been less than three years since your order was issued or was last reviewed or modified, you may still get a review if:

  • there's been at least a 25% change in either parent's income, the cost of health care coverage for the child, or the cost of child care
  • the existing child support order doesn't include a provision for health care coverage or payment of unreimbursed medical or dental expenses
  • a child needs to be added or taken off of the order, or one of the children covered by the order is no longer eligible to receive support, such as when there's been a change in child custody or a child is emancipated
  • either parent's income is changing as a result of being recalled to active duty in the National Guard or Reserves, or
  • the parent who owes support is incarcerated for at least 180 consecutive days.

If the review shows that your situation warrants a change in the amount of support, the agency may file a modification request with the court. Sometimes, the DCSE can make adjustments without a court hearing.

Parents also have the right to file their own petitions to modify child support, but they'll need to demonstrate that there's been a material change in circumstances (meaning that it would affect the child's needs or a parent's ability to pay support). Under Virginia law, a parent's incarceration for at least 180 days will be a qualifying change in circumstances. Some other circumstances that might qualify include changes in the parents' physical custody arrangements or a parent's income. Changes related to a parent's remarriage might warrant a modification of child support in certain situations, particularly if that parent has a new child.

Once you've met the changed-circumstances requirement, the judge will need to consider whether that change warrants a different amount of support, based on the guidelines and both parent's current situation. That means that even if you requested a reduction in child support based on changed circumstances, the judge might end up ordering an increase in support if that's what the guidelines call for.

(Va. Code §§ 20-108, 20-108.1(B)(3) (2024); Milam v. Milam, 778 S.E.2d 535 (Va. Ct. App. 2015).)

When Does Child Support End in Virginia?

Under Virginia law, the child support obligation generally ends when a child turns 18 or is legally emancipated. However, support will continue for a child over the age of 18 who is:

  • a full-time high school student
  • not self-supporting, and
  • living in the home of the parent seeking or receiving child support.

Under those circumstances, support will continue until the child turns 19 or graduates from high school, whichever happens first.

A judge may also order support for an adult child who has a severe, permanent mental or physical disability, as long as:

  • the disability existed before child support would've otherwise ended (under the provisions above)
  • the child lives with the parent who's receiving child support, and
  • the child can't live independently and provide self-support.

(Va. Code § 16.1-278.15 (2024).)

More Resources and Help With Child Support

Virginia doesn't have an official, online child support calculator. But you can download the Child Support Guidelines Worksheet, which includes directions. There's a separate worksheet for parents with shared custody. If you're having trouble with the calculations, you can call the DCSE customer service line at 1-800-468-8894 or email them for help. The DCSE also has an FAQ page with answers to common questions about child support.

If you can't get the help you need from the DCSE, you may want to speak with a lawyer. Having an experienced family law attorney on your side can be especially important when you have a complicated custody arrangement (such as split custody), you're arguing for (or fighting) an amount of child support that departs from the guidelines, or you and your co-parent can't agree about a requested modification in support.

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