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.
Although child support is intended to cover basic needs, it might 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 the 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.
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", 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. (CO Rev Stat § 19-4-105.5). 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. To find useful paternity forms, click here.
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 (if required by the employer), pensions, workers' compensation and unemployment compensation benefits, and Social Security. The guidelines formula also takes into account certain 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.
Also note that if a court finds a parent is intentionally unemployed or under-employed, it can impute income to that parent. In other words, the court can base child support on what that parent could be earning, based on factors such as the parent's prior employment history, education level, and the local job market.
As mentioned above, the guidelines adjust support for the time children spend with a parent. The typical custody arrangement is for a child to live with one parent, with the other parent having the child for certain weekends and possibly seeing the child one or two evenings per week. (There are many variations of this type of schedule.)
The guidelines also take into consideration cases involving "split physical care" and "shared physical care" of the children. Split physical care refers to situations where there's more than one child, and each parent has physical care of at least one of the children by reason of that child residing with that parent the majority of the time.
Shared physical care means that each parent keeps a child (or children) overnight for more than ninety-two overnights each year and that both parents contribute to the expenses of the children in addition to the payment of child support.
Note that the guidelines may not apply where parental income is very low or very high.
Once the award is determined, a child support order will be filed with the court and provided to the parents. 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 (The Department of Human Services) updated with current employment and contact information so that payments can be tracked.
Child support ends when a child turns 19 or is emancipated, which typically occurs if the child marries or enters into active military duty. However, support may continue after that age if the child is physically or mentally disabled. If the child is still in high school or an equivalent program at age 19, support continues until the end of the month following graduation.
If the child stops attending high school prior to graduation and then later re-enrolls, the child is entitled to support upon re-enrollment and until the end of the month following graduation, but not beyond age of 21.
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.
Judges may deviate from the guidelines when ordering child support when they believe applying the guidelines would be unfair, unjust, or inappropriate. For example, a judge might determine that using the guidelines wouldn't be right if there's a big difference between the parents' income, or a parent has extraordinary medical expenses.
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 tax refunds (meaning, the State "intercepts" and takes the funds before they're paid to the delinquent parent), suspension of driver's license, seizure of bank accounts, reporting 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.
Depending on the circumstances, income assignments might also be applied to retirement benefits, workers' compensation, unemployment checks, and 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.
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 so substantial and continuing as to make the terms of the current support order unfair. A modification can also be warranted where the support order doesn't contain a provision regarding medical support, such as insurance coverage, payment for medical insurance deductibles and copayments, or unreimbursed medical expenses.
The law provides that a substantial and continuing change of circumstances doesn't exist if the new circumstances would result in less than a 10% change in support under the guidelines. (CO Rev Stat § 14-10-122)
Modifications are sometimes granted when a parent loses a job involuntarily or suffers a major loss of income, or when the custodial and visitation arrangements change and the child now spends more time with one parent and less with the other. These are just two examples. It will be up to the court to determine if a parent's new circumstances justify modification.
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.
Official Child Support Forms, by the Colorado Judicial Branch