Everything You Need to Know About Child Support

Child support negotiations can be complicated. We have tips from leading attorneys to help you sort through the process.

Negotiating child support can be a complex and overwhelming process. There's a long list of details and variables to fully understand when determining what's an adequate amount of money to cover the cost of child rearing. There are also guidelines and laws that vary state by state surrounding the formulas used to calculate support. And along with all that, don't forget about the myriad of emotions involved in this process—and how they can cloud your better judgment. Before you enter into the process of settling upon a child support agreement, it's really best to do your homework and understand all the factors that will come into play.

To help with that effort, we've rounded up key points to bear in mind when embarking on child support negotiations—from top attorneys around the country. Because "the more information you have, the more prepared you will be to begin the process," says Glen Levine, co-founder and senior partner at The Law Offices of Anidjar & Levine.

But first, one more thing that isn't on the list below, because why not just get it out of the way before diving into gritty details: Do your very best to check your emotions at the door. You'll be better off in the long run, says Levine.

"One of the most significant obstacles is when one or both parties allow anger or emotion to influence the negotiation of child support," says Levine.

Here are all the other important tips to keep in mind.

01 of 10

Familiarize yourself with the law.

Sure, you may have a lawyer or a mediator helping with child support negotiations, but it's still important to understand the local laws that will impact the outcome.

"While each state handles child support differently, most states have a formula or calculation that they use to determine a basic child support award," says attorney James DeStefano, counsel in the matrimonial and family law group at New Jersey-based Einhorn, Barbarito, Frost & Botwinick. "Educate yourself on what expenses are included in child support versus what expenses are not."

Often, court websites in your state will have general information about child support, including forms and documents that must be completed if you choose to represent yourself in the case, says DeStefano. Court websites may also have links or forms designed to assist you in performing your own calculation of child support based on that state's formula or a child support calculator.

You can also conduct online research to find your state's law on child support. There are websites that provide summaries of state laws as well as links to specific state statutes that address the issue. Finally, you might also try looking up family law attorneys in your area, as often attorneys have blogs or other content on their websites that provide basic information.

While you're doing all of this research, you'll also want to become acquainted with when child support typically ends and what events constitute emancipation under the laws of your state.

"The better your understanding of the law, and the more prepared you are, the better the likelihood of negotiating a favorable resolution," says DeStefano.

02 of 10

Have a thorough understanding of each party's income.

Naturally, income is a significant factor when determining child support awards. Meaning, it's critical to have the correct income figures for each party involved when engaging in these negotiations.

While each state has their own definition of income that they use when determining child support, know that many states will consider all components of compensation such as base salary, deferred compensation, and bonuses that a party receives.

"It's customary to engage in discovery and exchange tax returns, W-2s, 1099s and K-1s. However, a document that is less often requested but provides a plethora of information is a year-end pay stub," says DeStefano. "Aside from providing details as to a party's total earned income from that pay source, a year-end pay stub will typically show the amount of a bonus received, whether deferred compensation was received, or if that party had any other forms of income not otherwise known or addressed."

While exchanging financial information may seem tedious, or even challenging if one party is not fully cooperative, this step is necessary to ensure that an appropriate child support award is calculated.

"Too often people play games in failing to disclose the entirety of their income and assets. So do not calculate child support until you feel comfortable that all income information has been disclosed," says New Jersey-based attorney Evan Weinstein.

03 of 10

Come prepared with a number.

This may seem like a simple tip, but Chicago-based attorney Tiffany Hughes says it is surprising how effective coming in with one (or two) different calculations of child support can be in the overall success of the process.

"It is far easier to start off from something than with nothing," says Hughes. "Just be sure that your calculations are supported by the documentation or it could sour negotiations and leave the other side feeling as though they are being tricked."

04 of 10

Don't overlook expenses not typically covered by child support.

The expenses included in child support may differ from state to state and certain expenses associated with raising a child may fall outside of those that are typically covered, says DeStefano.

These might include (but are not limited to) the child's share of a medical insurance premium, a child's unreimbursed medical expenses, significant extracurricular activities such as those associated with travel, sports, daycare, before- and after-school care, and even expenses related to a vehicle driven by a child who is not emancipated.

"Any expense that is not covered by child support should be addressed as part of an overall resolution," says DeStefano "These "extras" can be addressed in several ways, including payment of an additional supplemental child support amount, sharing of the expenses equally or in proportion to incomes, or each party agreeing to be responsible for certain uncovered expenses."

The key point to remember is that failing to address the extras during negotiations will likely result in more litigation in the future.

05 of 10

Overnights factor into child support costs.

As part of this process, there must be a determination of how many overnights each parent has with the child (if custody is to be shared at all) because the more overnights one parent has the more expenses that parent incurs for the child, says New Jersey-based family law attorney Ronald Lieberman.

"Certain expenses vary depending on the number of overnights, whereas some expenses like [the cost of] shelter really don't depend on how many overnights are involved," explains Lieberman. "So, an adjustment is made when a parent has overnights because that parent is defraying expenses."

06 of 10

Don't accept restrictions on the use of child support.

Many spouses find it frustrating that the supported spouse benefits from their child support payment. (Remember what we said about not letting emotions get involved here?)

New Jersey-based attorney Evan Weinstein points out that it's totally improper for the "payor spouse" to dictate to the recipient spouse how the support is to be used. Keep that in mind as you work your way through these often-challenging negotiations.

"Payor spouses often do not want to see their ex-spouse live a better lifestyle than they are, or even have any satisfaction from the prospect that they are being paid by their former spouse," explains Weinstein. "They frequently will ask for proof of how the child support has been spent. They have no right to even make that request. There are no restrictions on how child support may be utilized."

07 of 10

Request periodic reviews of child support.

Children's needs change over time (not earth shattering news to any parent). But this fact plays a role in child support considerations. Do not be afraid to craft agreements that call for periodic reviews of the payment of child support.

"The courts favor more frequent reviews for what is known as COLA or cost-of-living adjustment," says Weinstein. "That's a review that takes place every two years. The factors for the review are changes in income of both parties, changes in needs of the children, changes in net worth."

08 of 10

Ensure that your final written agreement is specific.

Whatever agreement you ultimately develop will be binding and enforceable for you and the other party involved, making it incredibly important to develop extremely detailed guidelines that cover all aspects of child support and related issues.

Aside from the specific amount of child support one party must pay to the other, consider addressing some of the following issues: how often will child support be paid (weekly, bi-weekly, monthly; how will the payor get the child support payment to the payee (check in the mail, direct deposit into an account, through a county probation or child support enforcement unit); what happens if a payor spouse fails to pay the payee spouse; does a written demand need to be sent before a court application is filed; will interest accrue on arrears? And finally, will there be periodic cost-of-living increases? If so, when will that be calculated and how will the new child support obligation be memorialized?

These are some of the ancillary child support issues that should be detailed in a comprehensive agreement, says DeStefano.

09 of 10

Security for child support.

Finally, it is also important to address how each party will secure their obligation to support the children in the event of premature death. In most instances, parties in a divorce situation will secure their child support obligations by obtaining life insurance. But there are nuances to this issue that are infrequently addressed.

"For example, who will own the policy? Owning the life insurance policy on your ex-spouse's life, while the ex-spouse is required to pay the premiums, will allow you to receive information regarding the plan, whether premiums are current, who the beneficiaries are, directly from the insurance company," explains DeStefano. "If your ex-spouse will own the policy, will he or she agree to execute an authorization to allow you to receive information about the policy, ensure premiums are paid, and confirm that no changes to the beneficiaries designations were made? What happens if your ex-spouse fails to maintain the required amount of coverage? Will his or her estate be liable? Is an alimony trust appropriate?"

These are just some of the many nuances that must be considered and discussed with your attorney and ultimately should be made part of your agreement.

10 of 10

Avoid court at all costs.

One last consideration before wrapping up this discussion, if it all possible, avoid going to court to duke it out over your child support agreement, advises family law attorney Debra Whitson. She admits this tip may seem odd coming from someone who makes their living going to court, but her advice is worth keeping in mind.

"Family courts are there to help families who can't help themselves, families who can't work out their differences. But family court is no place for your family. Even the most educated, well-meaning stranger in a black robe will not know you, your children, your hopes, your dreams, and your finances in the level of detail that you do," explains Whitson. "Don't let that stranger in a black robe decide your children's future or determine your financial destiny. Using the support and guidance of a mediator or collaborative family law attorneys, you can craft the smartest, fairest outcome that meets your children's needs without either parent being unfairly disadvantaged."

Often, says Whitson, the two parties involved take the approach of looking at each parent's total household needs, including caring for the children in their respective home, and their total disposable income and then decide upon a level of support that puts each parent on equal footing financially. Some even use a joint account into which each parent deposits what is determined to be their fair share of child support and the expenses for the children are paid out of that account.

"This neutralizes the fear that some parents have that their child support isn't always directly benefiting their children," says Whitson.

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