Child Support Basics

    When Parents Divorce

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    When couples separate or divorce, a common question for parents is: How does child support work? Child support matters can be arranged by agreement, or if the parties are unable to agree, it can be established by the courts. 

    In trying to make an agreement, it is helpful if the parents know what a court might order, but it is also important for parents to look at the needs of the children and how those needs are going to be met. There are basic living expenses, and there can be extra discretionary expenses such as arts enrichment activities, tutoring, travel sports, summer camps, and private schooling. One day (or now, if your children are older), there will be college costs, cars and car insurance, and many additional expenses. It is helpful when parents work from a budget and are realistic about what they can afford and what it is reasonable for each parent to contribute to the expenses of the children. Making an agreement is certainly the best approach whenever this is possible.

    We have statutory guidelines in the Code of Virginia which give presumptive amounts based on information such as the number of children, the gross income from all sources from each of the parties, the cost of health insurance for the child, the cost of child care, and the amount of custodial time with each parent. Expenses of support for other children of the paying parent also can be factored into the child support equation. There are calculators from which the presumptive amount of child support can be determined. The courts generally follow the guidelines, but in some cases, it is possible to get a deviation from the guideline support.

    Child support is payable until the child turns eighteen, or, if still in high school, until the child graduates from high school or turns nineteen, whichever is earlier. Unless the parties agree, the court cannot order child support beyond that time, except for a disabled child. Normally, the courts cannot make a parent pay for college or pay child support for a college-age child absent an agreement. With regard to a child with disabilities, special rules apply.

    In setting child support, questions often arise about income, especially if someone is self-employed, is compensated on basis of commission, or receives part of his or her pay as a bonus. It often is helpful to look at the history of what the person has actually earned during the past three to five years, as well as any documented changes to that pattern. If someone has been a stay-at-home parent, questions arise about whether that parent will need to go back to work or at least will have income assigned to them as if they were working. A court can address both underemployment
    and unemployment.

    If child support is taken to court when parties separate, the court can issue a temporary order to last until the parties have divided their assets and liabilities and finalized a divorce that establishes permanent support. Similarly, when child support is set by agreement, the parties can specify how the support will work temporarily (such as until the parties are actually living apart, or until the house sells, or until the divorce is final) and how the support will work after that time.

    Child support is the child’s right and cannot be waived by a parent, but child support cannot be made retroactive by a court to a date prior to which the parent filed for support.

    It is helpful to consult with an experienced family law attorney to discuss the details of your particular situation and to learn about the ways of going about making an agreement or having the court set child support if necessary.

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    Phoebe Hall
    Phoebe P. Hall is an elder law, estate planning, and family law attorney who has been practicing law since 1969. She is CEO of Hall & Hall, PLC and sits on the board of visitors for Virginia Commonwealth University. A Richmond resident, she has two children and three granddaughters.