Child Support

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A payment that a noncustodial parent makes as a contribution to the costs of raising her or his child.

In the mid-1990s, as never before, child support became a topic of urgent U.S. national discussion. The system that awards and enforces child support was declared inadequate by state and federal policy makers. Failures in the system were blamed for child poverty rates, long-term dependence on government assistance, and the "feminization of poverty." Courts drew criticism for awarding child support inconsistently and inequitably. These social and economic issues attracted both federal attention and reform efforts.

The need for child support payments usually arises when one parent does not have physical custody of his or her child, so that parent's income does not benefit the child on a daily basis. At times, neither parent has custody, and both may pay a third person who is caring for the child. When both of a child's parents have full custody (as when they are married to each other), and usually when they are divorced and share joint physical custody, the needs of the child are presumed met and child support is not an issue. As long as parents provide a safe level of care, the government does not control their contributions to their children.

In the United States in the early 2000s, nearly half of all marriages ended in DIVORCE, and almost one-quarter of all children were born to unmarried parents. Most of the children who lived in single-parent families had a legal right to a child support order. Child support can be voluntary or court ordered and can be secured through a divorce decree or a separate action. Increasingly, support orders are issued by state agencies.

The legal duty to support a minor child belongs to both parents, even if the custodial parent is capable of caring for the child single-handedly. Support is awarded to provide for the child's basic needs and to allow the child to share in the standard of living of both parents. Although both mothers and fathers can be ordered to pay support, a 1994 study in Utah found that over a 20-year period, mothers were required to pay child support in fewer than one in five cases in which fathers received sole custody. A greater proportion of noncustodial fathers were ordered to pay support.

A petition for support is usually begun in a state court where the plaintiff (the parent seeking the order) resides. The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act of 1992, which was updated in 1996 and 2001 and which has been adopted in some form in the majority of states, provides that jurisdiction exists where the child or one of the parents resides. Before support can be awarded, parentage (called PATERNITY in the case of fathers, maternity in the case of mothers) must be demonstrated. The would-be payer is entitled to blood tests, but in some states must pay for them. The 1993 FEDERAL BUDGET bill (Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993, 42 U.S.C.A. § 666[a][2]) required states to offer speedy means of establishing parentage, since parentage disputes can delay a valid child support award.

Determining Awards

Child support awards are made by each state's family court system. Most states require that they be based on the best interests of the

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child. In addition to determining support in contentious divorce cases, courts review stipulations (agreements) between parents and can overrule an agreement that does not adequately provide for children.

Often, courts feel pressure to balance children's needs with their parents' needs. Awards are based on the noncustodial parent's ability to pay and must allow the parent to remain self-supporting. Many associations of noncustodial parents emerged after the 1980s to express their belief that awards were burdensome to the payers, benefited only the custodial parent, or did not provide payers with enough in return. At the same time, more single parents with children slipped into poverty than had at any other point in the nation's history.

In the mid-1990s, no federal child support guideline existed, mainly because child support was historically a state-controlled issue. Most states had established their own guidelines in the quest for fair standards. About 15 states used the "percentage-of-income" guideline, which is based on the income of the noncustodial parent. Thirty states used the "income-shares" method, which is based on the income of both parents. It prorates the total support between the parents and calculates each contribution proportionally according to income. Several states used the elaborate Melson formula, which provides a basic subsistence level for each parent before determining the primary support needs of the children. This formula then awards a percentage of the remaining income so that the children share in the standard of living of each parent.

Even when guidelines are used, judges consider the facts of a case and other...

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