How Does Child Support Work?

Child support is designed to help pay for a child's basic needs, including housing, food, clothing, school-related expenses, child care and medical care. The goal is to keep children in the same standard of living after a divorce or separation and to ensure they receive a comparable level of financial support regardless of which parent's home they're living in at the time.

State Guidelines

Each state sets its own child support rules and guidelines for establishing child support, which can vary considerably. Judges rely on their state's guidelines to determine the amount of child support orders. Generally, all income available to the parents, less certain allowable deductions, is taken into consideration when calculating child support. State laws determine when child support ends.

Support Models

States use one of three models to calculate child support. The Percentage of Income Model sets support as a percentage of only the noncustodial parent's income. It does not consider the custodial parent's income. Most states, however, use the Income Shares Model to set support using a percentage of the combined income of both parents. A more complicated version of the Income Shares Model is the Melson Formula. Only a few states, including Delaware and Hawaii, use this model, which helps ensure that the parents' basic needs are met in addition to the child's.

Time Spent With Each Parent

If a parent has sole physical custody, the noncustodial parent is generally obligated to pay child support. In the eyes of the court, the custodial parent generally fulfills the support obligation since she has the child the majority of the time. If the parents have joint or shared physical custody, support is often based on the amount of time the child spends with each parent. But, if one parent earns more than the other, the higher-earning parent may be ordered to pay child support even if both parents equally share physical custody.


Child support and visitation are completely separate issues. A child support order doesn't grant a parent any custody or visitation rights. The failure of a noncustodial parent to pay the child support obligation does not entitle the custodial parent to deny visitation.

Basic Needs and Add-Ons

Child support covers the child's basic needs, but the court can order additional amounts in some circumstances. In addition to housing, food and clothing, children need medical care, and some parents may have to pay for child care so they can work. After the basic child support payment is calculated, the court can add on certain additional costs.

Medical Expenses

The parent ordered to pay child support may also be required to pay for the child's health insurance if it can be obtained at a reasonable cost through his employer. The court determines what is considered reasonable based on the parent's other expenses. If the custodial parent covers the child under her policy, a portion of the health insurance costs may be added to the basic child support order to reimburse her for some or all of the costs of the premium. Depending on your state's guidelines, both parents may be required to split any out-of-pocket costs for medical care.

Educational Expenses

Education costs generally become an issue if the child is attending private school. Tuition may be shared based on the parents' abilities to pay. The higher-earning parent may be required to pay a higher percentage of the tuition than the lower-earning parent. Courts determine if private school tuition should be included as an add-on to a child support order by looking at various factors, such as:

  • public school options in the area
  • special needs of the child
  • prior attendance at a private school

Age of Maturity

Once child support is ordered, it continues until the child reaches the state's legal age of maturity. In the majority of states, child support stops once the child turns 18 or finishes high school, if later. In a few states, support may last until the child turns 21. If the parents agree, support can continue while the child attends college. If the child is disabled and not self-sufficient, most states require the parents to continue providing support beyond the age of maturity.