Family Law

Divorce: Modifying Child Support FAQs

This article answers common questions about modifying child support after a divorce.
By Melissa Heinig, Attorney
Updated: Aug 22nd, 2018

The court usually determines child support using a state formula. Although the child support guidelines vary from state to state, they all consider each parent’s income, how much time the child spends with each parent, and whether either parent has other children. It’s common for circumstances to change after a court order, but it’s not always enough to warrant a modification of your child support award or responsibility. This article will answer some common questions about child support modification after a divorce.

I lost my job after my divorce; how does that affect my child support?

The most significant factor in any child support determination is each party's income. In most states, the court will only modify child support if there has been an involuntary reduction to the paying parent's income. If you were employed full-time at the time of your divorce, and you decide to reduce your work hours to part-time, quit, or take a different job with a lower salary, the court will probably deny your request for a modification and may impute income to you, which means calculate your child support obligation based on your previous income.

I’ve decided to attend college; can I reduce my child support obligation?

In many states, attending college is not a valid reason to end or reduce a paying parent’s child support obligation. And if you’re the parent receiving support, a court won't necessarily view your decision to go to school as a reason to increase the other parent’s contribution to your children.

The law requires both parents to financially support their children, so even if you aren’t working while you attend school, the court will continue to enforce the current child support award. You should have a plan for how you will pay your child support while you attend classes. Otherwise, you may default on your obligation for child support, and that can lead to penalties from the court.

I’m receiving Social Security; will the court change my support award?

You can file a motion (request) to modify your child support award if your income changes. If you’ve retired since the last court order and you’re receiving Social Security Retirement Insurance or, if you are injured or disabled and collecting Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, you’re probably receiving less income than before. Most states require the parent asking for a modification of child support to demonstrate a significant change in circumstances since the last order before the court will consider altering award. If you’ve retired or become disabled, most judges will rerun the formula for child support to ensure that you are paying (or receiving) an amount that correlates with your most recent income. In many cases, parents accept Social Security Disability payments for a temporary period. If that’s the case, the judge will require you to update the court when you return to work and will reevaluate support at that time.

If you’re receiving Social Security Insurance (SSI), which is a benefit the government awards to low-income or disabled citizens, the court will likely modify your support obligation. If SSI is your only income, the court will not require payment for child support. If you're also receiving SSDI or other forms of income, the court will apply your other income to determine how much you should pay.

My husband remarried and had a new child, will this affect how much I receive for our child?

Yes, but only if your husband files a motion asking the court to change how much he pays. Although the court monitors monthly payments and enforces its court orders, the court does not keep track of how many children you have, nor does it automatically modify support if you have another child. If your husband is legally responsible for an additional child, the court may lower his support amount.

I am taking care of my child more than what the court order reflects, can I ask the court to adjust child support?

In some states, the amount of overnights the child spends with each parent is a significant factor in the child support formula. For example, Michigan uses the number of overnight visits as a primary factor when the judge determines support obligations for each parent. If your current support order doesn’t reflect the proper amount of time in which you’re primarily responsible for your child, you should contact an attorney in your state to explore your options.

My ex-wife just remarried. Does her spouse’s income affect my child support obligation?

In most states, a spouse’s income doesn’t impact the child support amount for an unrelated child. While a step-parent certainly helps contribute to raising a step-child, the law doesn’t require that parent to support the child financially.

I started a new job with a significant salary increase, does the court require me to modify child support?

No. Generally, courts do not require both parents to update the other if they change jobs, but this is only to ensure that automatic child support payments are rerouted to your new employer. Most states don’t require you to disclose your new income unless the other parent requests a review. However, you should check your marital settlement agreement or divorce judgment as there may be a provision that requires both parents to update each other if either receives an increase in income and which may even require you to provide copies of your yearly tax return.

My child’s other parent received a promotion and a raise 6-months ago. If I file for a modification of child support, will the court apply it to past payments?

No. Child support is not retroactive, meaning the court will only go back to the date you filed to implement an increase or decrease in support. For example, if your spouse received a bonus and a raise in salary in June, but you didn’t ask the court to review your support case until December, the court will only apply the change starting with the December payment.

My child’s needs are changing. Can I ask the court to review my child support case?

It’s not surprising that as children grow, it becomes more expensive to care for them. Most states require you to demonstrate that there has been a significant or material change in circumstances that requires modification, and you must also prove that your child’s needs have changed. If your child support order doesn’t reflect your child’s new extra-curricular activities, medical needs, or other necessities, the court may revisit your child support case.

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