Family Law

What Can Child Support Be Used For?

By Lina Guillen, Attorney
Learn more about child support payments and what they are used for.

Once a child support order is in place, the non-custodial parent must make regular payments on time and in the right amount. Some non-custodial parents may want reassurance that their child support payments are going towards their children's needs, but custodial parents aren’t required to account for how support payments are used.

Child Support Should Cover Basic Needs

Technically, child support is supposed to cover housing, food, and clothing, but as all parents know, the costs of raising a child involve more than just these basic needs. Child-related expenses also include a whole host of other costs, including those for school (tuition, parent association fees, after-school activities, and after-school care), books, and toys. Teenagers might have car costs, such as auto insurance or gasoline.

Child Support Is Based on Parents' Incomes

The idea behind child support is that the children of divorced or separated parents should live as comfortably as they would have if their parents had stayed together. Most states calculate child support by adding together both parents' incomes, then setting aside a percentage of the total for their children's needs. Other states, such as California, use a time-share model, which takes into account both incomes and the amount of time each parent spends with the child. Under this model, even if both parents make the same amount of money, the parent who spends less time with the child may be responsible for paying some amount of child support (depending on how big the time difference is.) For example, a 60-40 time split may not be significant enough to trigger child support, but an 80-20 time split certainly will.

The law assumes that the custodial parent is paying for housing, food, and clothing directly by making the mortgage or rent payments and buying groceries and clothes. The non-custodial parent contributes to these expenses by making a cash payment to the custodial parent.

Some State Courts Order Child Support “Add-Ons”

Children also need healthcare and medical insurance, and child care is often necessary so the custodial parent can work. After calculating basic child support, some states, such as California, allow courts to add a percentage of any additional costs to this basic child support amount. This yields the amount that the non-custodial parent will contribute. In some cases, courts will also order payment for unusual extracurricular or educational expenses, such as the cost for a child to attend a private school for gifted children.

Custodial Parents Don't Have to Report on Spending

Because custodial parents don't have to submit an accounting to the court for their child support spending, it's possible that a parent could spend the money—or at least some of it—on the parent's personal needs. If you suspect this is happening, you should notify the court, but you probably won't get much of a response unless the child's needs are actually being ignored or neglected. Most state courts will order parents to mediation to try to resolve their custody and support issues, but judges rarely do much more than that.

A Family Law Attorney Can Help

The laws surrounding child support spending can be complicated and the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For specific information, you should consult with a family law attorney.

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