Each state sets its own formula for how much child support a noncustodial parent has to pay. A given formula may, for example, base support payments on what the noncustodial parent earns, or base the amount on both parents' income. The child's needs are the top priority, but if a parent encounters financial hardship, a court can modify the payment amount. Depending on the situation, a modification can be temporary or a permanent change.
A noncustodial parent can suffer undue hardship due to a job loss, a substantial pay cut, or a temporary inability to work due to illness. The custodial parent can request a hardship-based increase in child support for similar reasons.
Each state sets its own rules for when hardship justifies modifying child support. For example, the first year a court issues a child-support order in Washington State, orders are only modified for hardship due to what state law calls "substantially changed circumstances." After a year, the law says "severe economic hardship" can justify a modification even without a change to circumstances.
Talking It Out
Either parent -- custodial or noncustodial -- can request a change in child-support payments because of undue hardship. The simplest way to arrange this, if both exes are willing, is to try negotiating the new amount between themselves. If they agree on the modification, the change still requires court approval. If both parents are on the same page, judges usually approve the requested change unless it falls way outside the state's guidelines.
To request a change in child support, a parent must follow his state's legal procedures. In Ohio, for example, a parent requests a modification through the court or through the state Child Support Enforcement Agency. To change the order through the courts, the parent must file a motion, then notify his ex. The parent requesting the change must offer proof of financial hardship. That's a requirement in any state.
If the noncustodial parent has trouble paying child support, she shouldn't wait to request a modification. Any payments she misses must be made up eventually. Suppose the parent misses four months of payments, then decides she needs a modification. Even if the judge agrees, the parent is still on the hook for four months of back child support. A modification isn't retroactive -- nothing but paying the money makes the obligation go away.