Child support is regulated by the individual States and their respective laws. There is more uniformity across the States than there are differences. The States created these guidelines to maintain eligibility for federal funding on unrelated areas of their budgets. The Federal legislation responsible for the States’ acceptance is the Family Support Act of 1988. All States hold that the best interests of the child must prevail and are to be given top priority. To be in compliance, all 50 states and Puerto Rico have adopted formulas or models for paying child support, and those guidelines appear in each state’s divorce statutes. Those models are:
- Income Shares – The Income Shares method of computing child support has been embraced by 37 states. It is a formula that in theory uses estimates of the cost of raising children using government-released figures. Income Shares aims to use both parents’ incomes, computes the percentage each parent’s income contributes to the whole, and as a percentage of the overall amount assigns an amount due
- Percentage of Obligor Income – also known as the Wisconsin model. 10 states use this method. Narrower in focus than Income Shares, ‘Percent-of-Income’ bases amounts on the non-custodial’s income
- Delaware -Melson – Applies parents’ combined income to a formula but in deference to the above two methods allows for the ability to pay in the equation. Three states use this method. Note: Massachusetts is unique in that it uses a hybrid of the above two methods.
For the better part of 50 years, the Federal Government has enacted laws aimed at protecting families from poverty (view your State’s laws here). These laws apply to all parents or guardians, and are supplemental to the laws enacted in your state. Most notable among those Federal laws were:
- The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 - authorized the Internal Revenue Service to withhold Federal income tax refunds in cases where the recipient is delinquent in paying court-ordered child support, and authorizes states to withhold a portion of unemployment benefits for the same purpose and prevents child support payments from being discharged in bankruptcy proceedings.
- The Child Support Enforcement Amendments of 1984 – required states to 1. require employers to withhold child support from paychecks of delinquent parents for one month, 2. provide for the imposition of liens against the property of defaulting support obligors, and 3. deduct from federal and state income tax refunds unpaid support obligations.
- The Family Support Act of 1988 - allows states to garnish wages for the purpose of collecting child support and requires states to maintain clearly defined child support guidelines.
- The Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 - allows states to prosecute parents who willfully choose not to pay child support.
- The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliations Act of 1996 – transitioned the program known as Welfare to (TANF) Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, created a Federal Case Registry of Child Support Orders (FCR) and a National Directory of New Hires (NDNH) for the purpose of tracking child support cases and locating obligors.
All States have enacted laws pertaining to the calculation and enforcement of child support. Each has laws unique unto itself, as well as statutes that share similar features to other States. Divorce-related services for each State can include:
- Support Establishment - the custodial parent can receive assistance in filing a petition to obtain a child support order. Information about the non-custodial parent’s ability to pay is provided to the court. In most cases the custodial parent’s income id also provided and the court uses state-approved guidelines to determine the amount and frequency of support.
- Support Collection – once a child support order is made by a court, a local Child Support Enforcement Unit gets involved. The degree of involvement varies from State to State. Many CSEUs receive payments, keep track of what is due, notify employers on how much should be withheld from pay, and distribute payments to custodial parents.
- Support Enforcement: Administrative Process – actions the agency can take without going to court:
- Wage Execution (Garnishment)
- Property Execution
- Driver’s License suspension
- Income tax refund offset
- Credit bureau submission
- Lien filings
- Unemployment insurance intercept
- Passport denial
- Support Enforcement: Court based – a process that results from a failure of the Administrative Process (see above) to produce the required payments. Referral to the court system typically results in punishment with the effort to collect arrearages.
- Medical Support Establishment and Enforcement – when needed, these efforts help custodial parents obtain and enforce health insurance coverage for children of the marriage/union.
- Location Investigation – when the custodial parent does not know where the non-custodial parent is, these efforts use local, state and Federal resources for location and enforcement procedures
- Modification of Child Support Orders – when a parent (either may petition) requests a change in the order of child support made by the Family Court, this process ia available to determine if either custodial parent’s circumstances have changed materially enough to justify changes (financially or other circumstances).
- Cost of Living Adjustment – States via their child support agencies will review (some automatically, others by request) support orders to determine if cost of living increases are warranted.
- Paternity Establishment – unwed fathers typically have no legal relationship with the child. This process makes available to unmarried parents a way to determine paternity using genetic marker or DNA tests.
Learn the state and local laws that apply in your case by visiting your state page.
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