Filing for Child Support: How to Apply and How Much You Can Get

Learn how to get child support payments, how support payments are determined, and how the process works in common situations.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School
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Financially supporting a child is a significant legal responsibility for any two parents, no matter their relationship status. Child support is a way of ensuring that each parent's financial share of raising the child is fair and equitable.

The purpose of child support—a series of ongoing, regular payments by one parent to the other for the benefit of the child—is to maintain a consistent standard of living for the child regardless of which parent has primary custody of the child. Both parents are supposed to contribute to the best of their ability until the child becomes an adult.

How Much Child Support You'll Get

Every state has guidelines for determining child support. For example, in some states, courts determine the amount of support a parent should pay by simply using a percentage of the parent's income. Other states' calculations are more complicated. For example, some states evaluate each parent's income and expenses, the amount of time each parent spends with the child, and the number of children that the parents are legally obligated to support.

For information on how your state determines the amount of child support, you can review DivorceNet's state-specific child support articles.

What to Do When You Agree With Your Spouse on Child Support

When parents agree they are both legally responsible for a child and are willing to work together, they can often formulate their own plan for child support. Most states have approved child support calculators online that parents can easily access to determine the right amount.

Zero Support Agreements

Note that because child support is considered to belong to the child, a court or child support agency typically won't approve an agreement for zero support unless there are extraordinary circumstances. A judge won't, for example, okay any agreement where child support was used as a bargaining chip, as where one parent agrees to waive child support in exchange for the other parent agreeing to a certain custody arrangement. On the other hand, if, for example, one parent is medically unable to work and as a result can't provide any financial support, the court might find this to be a good reason to approve an agreement for zero support.

Finalizing Your Child Support Agreement

Whether you negotiate on your own or get help from a mediator, after you and the other parent agree, you'll need to present the final child support agreement to the court or the state child support agency for approval (more on this procedure below). Once the agreement is approved, it will be converted into an order to make matters formal. Don't neglect to have the agreement entered as an order: Even though you might be on good terms now, making it official is the only way to ensure both parents continue to comply should the relationship turn sour.

How Do I Apply for Child Support?

The process for applying for child support depends on whether you were ever married to your co-parent.

How to Apply for Child Support When You're Getting Divorced

If you are getting a divorce from your co-parent, you'll need to ask the court to evaluate support in your divorce petition (request). Here's how that process usually goes.

1. Separate From Your Spouse

Two married parents generally can't file for child support unless they are living in separate households. Living apart probably won't be an issue once the divorce is finalized, but not all couples live separately while a divorce is pending. If that's your situation and you need child support before the court finalizes your divorce, you can file an Order to Show Cause—a document in which you ask for temporary child support and require your spouse to explain to the court any reasons why the request shouldn't be granted ("show cause"). (Note that some states require parents to "live separately and apart" for a period before filing for divorce.)

2. Request Child Support in Your Divorce Petition

Many states provide different divorce petition forms based on whether you have children. For example, in Florida, the form for a divorcing couple with children has an entire section dedicated to child support.

If your state uses the same petition forms for couples with and without children, you'll need to include a request for child support with your petition. The information you'll have to provide includes names, birth dates, and addresses for the children.

3. Provide Financial Information to the Court

During your divorce, the court will ask both parents to submit financial information, including:

If you support other biological or adopted children, the court will need to know information about those children, too.

The court will evaluate the information you provide in light of how you and your spouse are dividing custody.

4. Appear in Court if Necessary

Many courts require the spouses to appear at a hearing before finalizing the divorce. Depending on your divorce court's procedures, the court might address child support at this hearing, or might require you to attend a separate child support hearing.

How to Apply for Child Support When You Aren't Married

If you never married your child's other parent or got divorced without a child support order in place, you'll need to apply for a support order.

Each state has its own procedures for applying for child support in this kind of situation. For example, in some states you might have the option of applying directly to a state agency while in others you might have to get a court order for support. Your state's child support enforcement program is the best source of information about how to apply. (You can visit the Office of Child Support Enforcement's online directory for links to each state program's website.)

Whether you end up going to a court or an agency, your state's child support office can help you with any of the following steps involved in getting a child support order.

1. Find the Other Parent

You will need to give the other parent notice that you are formally requesting child support. If you don't know how to contact the other parent, your state's child support agency can help: These agencies have access to information such as tax files, motor vehicle records, and credit bureaus that they can use to track down a missing parent. And if you know it, providing the agency with the other parent's Social Security number can be extremely helpful.

2. Establish Parentage

When parents are married, the court presumes that both parents are biologically related to the child they are raising. (This rule applies to same-sex couples as well, though laws on the matter are evolving.)

However, if you've never been married to your child's other parent, the court must establish parentage before moving forward with a child support case. "Parentage," which refers to who a child's legal parents are, is also commonly referred to as "paternity."

Paternity laws are different throughout the country, but in most states you can establish paternity by:

  • signing an acknowledgement or admission of paternity (some states call this document an "affidavit of paternity")
  • producing a certified birth certificate for the child that is signed by the other parent, or
  • getting a paternity order from either the court or the appropriate state agency.

(You can begin the process of getting an order by submitting a formal paternity request at the court or the appropriate agency.)

A parent who denies being biologically related to a child must participate in DNA testing. (If DNA testing is ordered, the state will pay for the tests.) Failure to submit to the DNA test can result in a court issuing a "default" judgment, which automatically establishes paternity.

In other words, when a parent seeks support from a former partner, but the former partner refuses to participate in testing, the court might automatically determine that the former partner is the biological parent. So, someone who isn't actually the child's biological parent but doesn't cooperate could end up having to pay support. It's tough to overturn a default judgment later (though not always impossible).

3. File an Official Request for Child Support

If you've already established paternity and would like to file for support without the help of the state's child support agency, you'll need to submit a formal request to your local court. Filing a child support motion might seem overwhelming—some parents hire attorneys to assist them, but there are many resources available online if you have to go it alone. Generally, this kind of motion must include:

  • both parents' identifying information
  • the child's information
  • details about and proof of parentage, and
  • an official request for support.

After you get it together, you will either bring your paperwork to the court where you live or file it electronically. (Check with the court clerk or online to see what the preferred filing method is in your court. Some courts might require you to e-file your divorce paperwork.)

Regardless of how you file, you will have to pay a filing fee. If you can't afford the filing fee, you can usually ask the clerk for information about how to apply for a fee waiver. (You'll need to provide financial information—after reviewing it, the court might find that you don't have to pay court fees or might order the other person to pay them.) Once you file, you'll need to follow your state's steps for informing the other parent of your case.

If you're working with the state's child support agency, the staff member assigned to your case will walk you through the next steps for requesting child support.

4. Provide Financial Information

Once you start a child support case, the court or administrative agency will request financial information from each parent. Both parents must provide detailed and accurate documentation of their income and child-related expenses, such as daycare and medical care. Every child support order must take into account money to pay for health care coverage, so be sure to address any relevant information, such as the cost of a plan provided by your or your co-parent's employer.

The court or child support agency will evaluate this financial information and apply your state's child support guidelines to formulate the amount of child support.

5. Attend a Child Support Hearing if Necessary

Your state might require you to attend a hearing to get the child support order. This kind of hearing is especially likely when a parent believes the other is hiding assets or underreporting income. It's also likely if one parent is accusing the other of being voluntarily unemployed or underemployed—in other words, intentionally not finding work or enough work.

If you believe the other parent is hiding assets, you can request an investigation. If your support case has already been in court, the judge might request that the local child support agency dig into the matter. At the end of the investigation, the agency will submit a recommendation about child support to the judge. If you disagree with the recommendation, you can ask for a trial to plead and prove your case. Consider contacting a local child support attorney or legal aid office for assistance with preparing and presenting your case.

In cases where one parent is underemployed or unemployed, the judge or agency will evaluate the reasons for the parent's reduced income—for example, having to care for a child, an illness, or a lack of job skills. The judge or agency might then impute the parent's income. "Imputing" means that the court will decide what income the parent should be making and use it in the support calculations. For example, if the parent doesn't work full time and can't give a good reason for working part time, the court or agency can use the income the parent could earn to calculate the support amount.

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