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Child Support

Abstract and Keywords

Child support is the legal mechanism requiring parents to share in the economic support of their children. Under the law, parents are obligated to support their children regardless of whether they reside with them. Support calculations for noncustodial parents are based on many different factors, which vary from state to state. Enforcement is the single biggest challenge in the area of child support. The federal government continues to pass laws enhancing states' enforcement capabilities. Recipients of child support differ by race and ethnic group. Child support obligations are distinct from alimony and are usually independent of parenting time.

Keywords: child support, arrears, noncustodial parent, enforcement, alimony, parenting time


Child support is the payment by a noncustodial parent to a custodial parent, caregiver, or guardian, for the care and support of children when the noncustodial parent resides elsewhere. Child support is generally awarded in family law proceedings involving divorce, marital separation, dissolution, annulment, and paternity. Historically, the support of a child was the father's responsibility. Today, both parents share responsibility for supporting their children (McNeely & McNeely, 2004). Child support awards reflect the basic policy that parents should share in the cost of raising a child. This duty extends to biological and adoptive parents, and in some cases, to nonparents who have established a parent-child relationship.


The Family Support Act of 1988 requires states to establish and enforce child support obligations. Although federal law does not establish state support calculations or goals, it requires states to adopt verifiable guideline calculations and requires that economic responsibility be divided between the parents. State formulas differ, but usually consider the parent's income, age of the child, number of other dependents, amount of child visitation exercised, taxes, insurance costs, and other factors to determine payment amounts (McNeely & McNeely, 2004). Procedures to obtain child support awards vary from state to state.

Enforcement Trends

Congress passed the federal child support program in 1974 to recoup welfare payments made to custodial parents by requiring absent parents to reimburse the state for those welfare payments (Comanor, 2004). Since 1974, Congress has continued to pass legislation to enhance state support enforcement capabilities (Henry, 2004). States now have the power to collect support through mandatory income withholding, interception of federal and state tax returns, and placing liens on financial accounts and personal property. Delinquent payers may be punished through incarceration or through suspension of driver's and occupational licenses.

Specific Challenges

The single biggest challenge in the area of child support is enforcement. The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement spent over 3 billion dollars in 2000 to recoup less than 1 billion dollars in delinquent child support payments. Put another way, for every dollar the federal government spent on child support enforcement, it recouped only 32 cents (Comanor, 2004). The fundamental dilemma is that obtaining child support payments from parents who earn little or no income is difficult, if not impossible. Most delinquent payers simply do not have the resources available to make their child support payments (Cammett, 2005). The incarceration of such payers only exacerbates the situation by inhibiting the parent's ability to earn. Additionally, once parents are released from incarceration they may have accumulated high arrears balances that they cannot realistically reduce (Cammett, 2005).

Cultural Demographics

The U.S. Bureau of the Census (2006) reports that as of spring 2004, 14 million parents had custody of 21.6 million children while the other parent resided elsewhere. Five of every six custodial parents in 2004 were mothers (83.1%) and one in every six were fathers (16.9%). Of the 14 million custodial parents in 2004, 8.4 million (60%) had some type of agreement or court-awarded financial support from the noncustodial parent. Of those parents owed child support in 2003, 76.5% received some money from the noncustodial parent, a figure that is statistically unchanged since 1993.

Those receiving full child support differed by race and ethnic groups. The highest proportion receiving payments were White. Of the 9,601,000 White custodial parents, 63% had court awards or agreements for child support of which 49% received full payment compared to 20% who received none. Of the 3,554,000 Black custodial parents, only 52.1% had court awards or agreements for child support of which 33.7% received full payment compared to about 34% who received none. Of the 1,977,000 Hispanic custodial parents, 49.9% had court awards or agreements for child support, of which 44.6% received full payment compared to nearly 30% who received none. In 2003, one in four custodial parents and their children were living below the poverty level, compared with 1993, when one in three was living in poverty (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2006). Thus, while a slightly higher percentage of Black than Hispanic custodial parents had child support awards or agreements, Hispanic custodial parents received full payment at rates more than 10% higher than their Black counterparts.

Related Themes

Persons involved with child support issues often raise a number of related questions. First, alimony and child support obligations are distinct. While child support is designed to provide for the child's needs, alimony is designed to equalize the incomes of the two households that result from divorce or separation (Braver & Stockburger, 2004). Courts now award alimony less frequently because both parents typically have employment. Regardless, courts may still order alimony and the calculation and conditions surrounding an alimony award are entirely independent of any child support award.

Second, courts usually view support and parenting time independently. Thus, a noncustodial parent is entitled to parenting time regardless of whether he or she pays child support. Similarly, a parent who has been denied parenting time may not withhold child support as retaliation. Despite this general rule, some contend that that support orders should be adjusted when parenting time is wrongly denied (Ellman, 2004).

Third, “father's rights” initiatives have been introduced in a number of states beginning in the mid- 1990s (Crowley, 2003). Most initiatives focus on allowing fathers equal physical custody of children and seek to alleviate perceived prejudice against fathers in the court system. An award of equal custody will necessarily affect a child support award, typically making child support a moot point. Further, even if equal custody is not granted, most courts will decrease the amount of a child support award if the noncustodial parent's contact with the child substantially increases.

Finally, research indicates the failure to collect child support payments increases the incidence of child delinquency and inhibits the general psychological and social development of children (Antecol & Bedard, 2004; Comanor & Philips, 2004; Wallerstein & Huntington, 1983).

Implications for Social Workers

Though the authors' research did not reveal precise data, it has been estimated that approximately only 10–15% of child support enforcement officers are social workers (J. Challa, personal interview, November 19th, 2007). Child support issues often arise tangentially in social work practice. To establish or modify child support orders, persons must either retain an attorney or represent themselves. A nonattorney who seeks to assist a person in this process is at risk for the unlicensed practice of law (Fischer & Lachmann, 1990). However, social workers' knowledge of this area is essential given the likelihood that child support issues may affect clients. Although only a licensed attorney may advocate in court, an understanding of these issues will enable social workers to appreciate their client's circumstances. Thus, social workers may enable clients to advocate for themselves and may also advocate for policy changes, including policies designed to help delinquent payers find meaningful employment that will make the payment of child support a realistic possibility.


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