Many single mothers rely on child support for additional money each month after a divorce, especially if they weren’t working before, or have lost their job, or need to stay at home with the kids instead of looking for other work. Unfortunately, anything to do with child support or money will often add even more tension to a situation that’s already difficult. That’s why every state has laws and regulations set up to make sure single parents get the support they need for their children. Here’s how to apply for child support, the easy way (in only 6 steps).
Understand State Regulations
The first thing you need to do is to look up the specific guidelines for your state. While there are general federal rules that regulate some aspects of child support and other divorce issues, every state has a slightly different set of rules. These rules will tell you how the child support amount is calculated, what things can be used in calculating child support (such as medical issues or disability), and how the support order will be enforced. You can find a link to the regulations in your state here.
If you clicked through just now, located your state, and pulled up a copy of the regulations, you might have seen something like this:
“The trier of fact shall enter an appropriate order based upon the evidence presented, without regard to which party initiated the support action, filed a modification petition or filed a petition for recovery of support overpayment.”
Don’t worry! The regulations are really a lot simpler than they look. But “the devil is in the details,” as they say, which is why it’s a good thing to at least get a copy of the actual rules of law that will apply during your child support case. The next step is to get an explanation of the rules. You can talk to a legal aid representative or a lawyer and ask any questions you have about the regulations. If you need to find free legal help, check out our free legal assistance by state guide.
You can also go to your local county courthouse for help. Even if they don’t have anyone there who can advise you, they should have brochures and information packets, and a list of telephone numbers of people you can call in the area.
Calculate the Amount
Another thing you need to figure out before you start is how much child support you can ask for. You need to be sure that you’re asking for enough to keep your family healthy and stable. You also need to be sure you’re not trying to ask for too much. There are a lot of factors that will be included in the calculation of child support, like the number of children you have in the house, how much time they spend living with you there, the ages of the children, your previous monthly budget and your current monthly budget, and how much you and your ex earn each month.
If you and your ex have a good relationship, you may not need to use a lawyer or have a court hearing to get child support established. However, you should still file an order with the court so that it’s on record. Even if you have a verbal agreement for this monthly support, you never know what will happen in the future, and you need to protect yourself and your children in case things go wrong. If you’re negotiating the amount of child support yourself, it’s especially important that you know all of the factors that should be considered. You can find do-it-yourself legal forms at your county courthouse, fill them out, and pay the filing fee when you submit them.
The court will have to approve any order, whether there’s a hearing or not, to make sure that the order follows the state and federal guidelines. They’ll be looking to see that the children are protected, and that the agreement is fair to everyone. If you’re not sure whether you’ve done the calculations correctly, look for someone at one of the free legal aid clinics in your area to look over the numbers and the forms you’ve filled out.
Depending on where you live, the court may look at your income as well as what your ex earns every month. If you have custody of the children – that is, if they live with you most of the time – then you’re already paying for food, clothing, household expenses, and other costs. The state may look at this as your contribution, without looking at the actual amount of any paycheck you bring home.
Joint custody means that the children are spending about the same amount of time living with you and your ex. If your children are older, and both you and your ex live close enough to their school that their normal routine won’t be disrupted, it’s not uncommon to have kids shuttle between each home every week or every two weeks. In this case, the court will generally assume you’re both providing the daily necessities like food and clothing, and will look at your monthly income as well.
To get a general idea of how much child support you can ask for, start with this website. Pick the state you’re currently living in, and fill in the numbers in the fields. You’ll need your current monthly income (before taxes), how much your ex is earning each month, any daycare expenses you’re paying, any amounts you or your ex are paying or receiving for child support from a previous divorce, and how much you or your ex are paying for health insurance each month.
One of the federal guidelines that control child support orders is the requirement that every child must have health insurance. This means that you or your ex may have to get the children on your health insurance through work, if they aren’t already. If the kids are on your ex’s plan and will stay on that insurance plan, you may have to help pay some of the insurance premium as part of the child support order. And you’ll probably both be responsible for some or all of any medical costs for the children that aren’t covered by insurance.
You need to make sure you’re including current or future medical costs for the children when you’re planning for child support. For example, is your child on asthma medication that you have to buy every month? Are they due to get braces next year? Be sure to note these dollar amounts down in your “monthly expenses” column. Rules about which medical expenses can be included are determined by the state, so write everything down to make sure that you have all of the information the court needs to decide the final amount of child support.
Gather Your Documents
Yes, more paperwork. Whether you’re filing your own claim for child support or working with a lawyer or a legal aid advisor, you need to have paperwork to back up your claim. Here are some of the things you’ll need to have in writing in order to make sure your claim will go through correctly, and can be enforced:
- The name, address, telephone number, and Social Security number of your ex.
- The name of his current employer, or the last one you know of.
- Any documents that show how much your ex is making, like bank statements or tax records.
- Any documents that show how much your ex has in assets, including any property that he owns, or that you own together.
- The birth certificates of the children.
- Any legal forms related to the divorce or separation.
- Any written agreements that have been filed with the court.
- Any written agreements that haven’t been filed with the court – for example, a letter that says that your ex agrees to help with the children’s school costs, or contribute to the monthly rent or mortgage on your house.
- Records of any payments you’ve already received for child support, whether that’s due to a court order or an informal agreement.
- Documents that show how much you earn each month, and how much you have in assets (like a savings account, for example).
Finally, you’ll need to collect all of the information you have related to how much your monthly expenses are. This is a long list. Think about rent or mortgage payments, utility costs, telephone and internet costs, car payments and gasoline costs, medical bills, daycare, school costs, expenses related to after-school activities like sports, monthly bus pass prices, the amount you spend on shoes and clothes for the children, how much you spend on food each month, and so on. If you don’t know the exact amount per month for any of these categories, estimate how much you spend per year, and then divide that number by 12.
This is the time to write down everything you can think of. You might not need all of the information for the child support order, but it will give you and any legal aid advisor helping you a better idea of how much you really need each month. You can use this information to set up a monthly budget for yourself, so that you’re in control of your own finances in the future.
Make Your Case
If your ex is the father of your child, he’s legally required to contribute child support until the child is 18 years old. If there’s a dispute about who the father is, you will have to establish paternity. That means you’ll need to get a blood test to prove he’s the father. This applies whether you were married or not.
If your ex isn’t the child’s father, then technically he’s not required to pay child support. However, if you have one or more children together, plus a child from a previous marriage or relationship, the total number of children you have in your household will be factored into the child support calculation. In other words, if you have three kids, and your ex is the father of your youngest child but not the two older ones, he will only have to pay support for that youngest child. The court will take into consideration the fact that you have three children in all when it comes to your monthly living expenses, so your ex will actually be paying a little bit more to contribute to the living expenses of the whole family, not just the expenses related to that one child. But if you’re already getting child support from the father of the two other children, that number will also be included in your monthly expenses, which will lower your ex’s child support amount.
Once you have all of your documents together, and you have written down absolutely everything that relates to your monthly budget – money coming in as well as money going out – then you can start to fill in the forms you need to file. You can get the forms at your local Division of Child Support office run by the state or county. This is also where you can get help in filing for support. To find the support office nearest you, click here.
Because each state has different forms and different procedures, and because each family is in a different situation, how long it takes you to get a court order filed, and whether or not you have to go through a court hearing to get your child support, really depends on your individual circumstances. Be sure to talk to a legal aid advisor if you have any questions, at any time during this process.
Set Up Payment Plans
Now that you have your child support order filed and the court has ordered that your ex sends you support money every month, you’re finished, right? We hope so! For many people, child support is an ongoing battle all the way up until the last child turns 18 years old. Even if you and your ex aren’t fighting about money, circumstances do change, and these changes can lead to an adjustment of the child support amount.
There are ways that you can make sure you’re getting the amount you need for child support, and one of the easiest things to do is to require that the monthly support payments are done by direct withholding from your ex’s paycheck. This can be part of the child support order, and once it’s filed, your ex’s employer will have to take the support amount out of his paycheck and transfer it to an account set up for you by the state, before giving the rest to him. As long as he keeps this job, this process is automatic. If he loses his job, or changes to a new employer, you’ll have to go back to the court to get help in setting up a new payment plan.
Money can also be collected from your ex’s state and federal tax refunds, by collecting money from retirement or disability income your ex is already receiving, or by putting a lien on his property (see information about that here). These are actions that the court can take if your ex refuses to make the child support payments he’s legally required to.
Once your child support order has been filed, your local child support office is responsible for making sure that your ex is making the payments every month. However, sometimes they don’t realize that payments haven’t been made on time, and that’s what you need to keep track of. Keep your bank statements or any other documents related to the support payments. If your ex sends you a check to cash every month, keep a record of that. If you get your support in cash each month, be sure to deposit it right away in your bank account so that there’s a record. When you keep a regular record every month, it will be clear that you’re being honest and responsible about these payments, and it will be easier to defend yourself in case your ex starts arguing about whether a payment has been made.
If you’ve started out by agreeing to get a monthly check, but then your ex stops paying you regularly, this will often trigger an immediate change over to direct withholding. Make sure this point is included in your child support order, just in case.
You also need to keep a record of any amount of monthly support that wasn’t paid, whether that’s a partial payment or one that is entirely missing. These unpaid support amounts are called “arrears” and your ex is legally required to pay them, no matter how long it takes. Notify your child support division office representative who is handling your file about any arrears, and they will take steps to make sure the past due amount is collected. In general, if your state has an income tax, the past due amount will be deducted from your ex’s next refund.
Keep Up With Changes
Life goes on, and things change. The amount of your child support can change over time as well. It could increase or decrease, depending on your family situation – and your ex’s family situation, too. There are many things that can change monthly child support payments, but here are some of significant changes in circumstances that commonly lead to changes in the amount:
- Your monthly expenses have increased. This might happen because you’ve had another child, or your rent has gone up, or your younger children are now in school with all of those extra costs. This could even be due to regular cost of living increases. And although it’s not really an increase, if you lose your job or your hours are cut, you’ll have less money to contribute to the monthly budget, and that means your needs will be higher.
- Your ex has more expenses or less money. His family situation will change over time as well, and since the child support amount takes his monthly expenses into considerations too, if he loses his job, he won’t be able to pay as much.
- You’re now sharing custody of the children. This sometimes happens as the children get older and can deal with moving between households regularly. If you’re sharing the responsibility for the children, you’re also sharing their daily living costs, and the court will recalculate the child support amount. In this case, if you have a better salary and lower living expenses than your ex, you might not receive any more child support – and you may even be paying a small amount of child support to him.
Just because your ex loses his job, that doesn’t mean he can stop paying child support. The support amount might be lowered, but it can still be automatically withheld from any unemployment compensation he receives. Additionally, if he moves and starts working for another employer, even if that employer is in a different state, you can still apply to have the support payments automatically withheld. You need to make sure you tell your local child support office immediately when you learn about any changes in your ex’s job, or even if he’s planning on changing jobs or moving.
If your ex moves out of state, or if you have to, you can still keep the child support order, or file a new one in the new state, depending on whether you’re moving or he is. The child support offices in each state work with each other to make sure that support orders are transferred across state lines. Since every state has slightly different rules, however, the new support order may not be identical.
The court will review your support order if there has been a significant change in circumstances, like a change in income, or medical expenses, or custody arrangements. Even if there haven’t been large changes, you can still ask for a review and adjustment every three years. This will help you to keep up with long-term changes in your cost of living. It’s important to keep your documentation current so that you always have the information you need for any legal procedure.