Even if child support has already been formally established by a court, you can still go back and ask for a child support modification due to a change in circumstances.
Whether you need the adjustment to be short-term or permanent, here's what you need to know about asking for a child support modification in court.
When to Request a Child Support Modification
Whether their parents were once married and have divorced, or if they were never married in the first place, minor children raised by separated parents are entitled to the same level of support they would have received in a two-parent household.
This support must be paid by both parents, including non-custodial parents, and is established through a child support proceeding in court. In most states, if married parents separate, child support becomes part of the process.
Depending on state law, minor children generally are considered those under the age of 18. There may also be provisions for adult children who are incapable of caring for themselves due to a disability.
At the court hearing, each parent should be prepared to present evidence of his or her ability to pay child support. The most recent tax returns and pay stubs are the best documentation. Courts attempt to establish reasonable payments based on the current income of each parent.
After the court orders a specific child support amount, either parent may seek to modify the child support agreement. However, a parent seeking child support modification will need to prove a change of circumstances.
Each state has its own court system and process for changing a child support order. You can obtain information for each state from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Child Support Enforcement.
Reasons for Child Support Modification
Either a custodial or non-custodial parent may petition the court to modify a child support arrangement. The most common reason is a change in income, but there are other potential reasons as well.
Increase in Income
A custodial parent may discover that the parent who is responsible for child support payments (the "obligor") is the beneficiary of a large sum of money due to factors such as a:
- Career or job change; or
In such a case, the custodial parent can petition the court for an increase in child support responsibilities. If the court agrees, the obligor would be responsible for additional child support payments based on their increase in income.
Decrease in Income
Either the custodial parent or the obligor can request a modification after a decrease in income. This change could be caused by:
- A new job in a lower-paying industry
- A change to part-time work
If a non-custodial parent loses their primary income, they may be unable to meet their current child support obligation and request a modification to decrease their payment. If the parent who is the primary caretaker loses their income, they might seek an increase in payments from the non-custodial parent.
If you are incarcerated, whether or not you can get a child support modification will depend on your state. In some states, being in prison is considered "voluntary unemployment" and might not make you eligible for a modification.
If you are sentenced to prison, you should contact your local child support office immediately and ask for a review. Your child support order will not be automatically reduced when you enter prison.
New Needs of the Minor
As children age, their needs increase, often with an increase in expenses for expenses like:
- Medical or dental care, such as braces
- Support or therapy for a physical or learning disability
- Extracurricular classes, activities, or sports
- Attending a private school
A custodial parent might seek additional child support to assist in the costs associated with aging children or children whose needs have changed.
If the obligor remarries and/or has other children, the obligations and expenses will change. In that case, they might petition the court to decrease their child support obligation to one child, which would allow them to provide an equal level of support to all of their children.
If the custodial parent has more children, then that parent would be responsible for their support, not the obligor in the original child support agreement.
Temporary vs. Permanent
If the court agrees to a child support modification, the change may be either temporary or permanent.
A temporary modification can be a large, one-time expenditure for the needs of a child, such as the cost of school uniforms or a medical emergency.
A permanent modification reflects a substantial change in the needs of a child or the ability of the parent to pay. For example, if a child is diagnosed with a disability, the associated expenses would most likely increase permanently.
If a parent becomes disabled and is unable to work, the court may also permanently decrease their child support obligation.
Child support obligations can be emotionally and financially taxing on families and children and can create friction between separated parents. Child support modification is necessary in many cases to maintain a balance between the two households.
Once an initial support order is in place, people's lives often change, sometimes for the better. When that happens, the court can assist with modifying a child support order.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
How is child support calculated?
Child support amounts are determined by state-level authorities, which will consider factors like your income level, daycare costs, and the amount of time you spend with the child. State resources, like California's child support calculator, can help you figure out a more specific figure that you'll pay.
When does child support end?
As with child support amounts, the time when child support ends also depends on state law. In California, for instance, the obligation of child support ends when the child is 18 and has graduated from high school; or when they turn 19 if they are still in high school; or if they join the military, become emancipated, marry, or enter a domestic partnership.