Guiding You Through Child Support

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This guide may assist in answering questions you may have regarding Child Support.  We encourage you to ask other questions, as it is impossible to answer all of your questions in this guide.

What is child support?

Child support is a payment in an amount to meet the reasonable needs of your child(ren) for health, education and maintenance.  Child support obligations take into consideration the incomes, childcare costs and health insurance costs, etc. of each party.

Who receives child support?

The court will order that the non-custodial parent pay child support to the custodial parent. 

How is child support paid?

The preferable method of payment is through the clerk of court.  This method allows for payments to be properly recorded (you won’t have to personally keep up with receipt of payments).  Making payments through the court also has the added benefit of allowing the use of contempt proceedings in the event of nonpayment.  Such proceedings are done at no cost to the custodial parent.  Payments made through the court should be by cash, certified check, or money order and will be directly mailed out to the custodial parent. 

If we cannot reach a private agreement, who determines child support?

If you and the other parent are unable to reach agreement on child support, the court will need to determine child support.  Child support cases are heard by the District Court.  Usually, theses cases are heard in the county in which the child(ren) resides.  There may be circumstances where you may need to file a case in another state, such as when the other parent lives in another state and has no contacts with the state of North Carolina.  In making a ruling on child support, the court will set out findings of facts relating to the parents’ ability to pay support, the reasonable needs of your child(ren), and, if applicable, the reasons dictating deviation from support Guidelines. 

Is it necessary to have a hearing to determine child support?

No, you and the other parent may privately agree on child support through written agreement, or it may be resolved by court order; however, either party may request a hearing on child support when they cannot agree on the amount, when the parties’ combined adjusted gross income is more than $180,000 per year, or when one party is armed with other facts suggesting that deviation from the Guidelines is appropriate

May I register a court order for child support from another state in North Carolina?

Yes.  You may file and register the other state’s order for child support with the Clerk of Superior Court.  Likewise, for purposes of enforcement, you may also register a North Carolina order in the state where the other parent lives.

Will my divorce decree settle child support obligations? 

Not necessarily.  Matters of child support may be settled before or after a final decree of divorce.

How is child support determined? 

Like all states, North Carolina has adopted Guidelines setting child support amounts based on variables relating to family income and the number of children.  These Guidelines are reviewed at least every three years.  Current Guidelines provide child support amounts for families with combined gross incomes up to $300,000 per year. 

What if our combined gross income exceeds $300,000 per year? 

In such cases, you and the other parent either need to negotiate an amount of support satisfactory to both of you, or you need to ask the court to decide whether a deviation above the maximum guideline amount is justified under the circumstances

Am I bound by the Guidelines if I need more child support? 

Not necessarily.  The Guidelines are just that – a guide.  They are flexible and do allow for other factors, such as any special needs relating to your child(ren).  It is within the court’s discretion to account for any other factors it may find important.  The judge is capable of deviating upwards or downwards, depending on your circumstances.  The court may deviate from the Guidelines if it “finds by greater weight of the evidence that the application of the Guidelines would not meet or would exceed the reasonable needs of the child(ren) considering the relative ability of each parent to provide support or would be otherwise unjust or inappropriate. . . .”  Under these Guidelines, child support is a shared obligation.  Each parent’s obligation is computed by factoring in each parent’s gross income, accounting for responsibility for other children, work-related daycare, medical expenses, etc.  Adjustments relating to other aspects of caring for your child(ren), such as health care premiums, are also considered. The child support guideline worksheets also account for visitation levels.  For example, Worksheet A is used when the non-custodial parent has less than 123 overnights per year; Worksheet B is used when the non-custodial parent has more than 123 overnights with the child(ren); and Worksheet C is used for split custody, or when each parent has one or more children with them primarily.

What is accounted for in child support payments? 

Child support payments may account for such matters as medical expenses, health insurance coverage, tax exemptions, and college education.  It is important to remember, however, that certain expenses are beyond the court’s powers.  College education expenses, for example, may be included in child support payments but will need to be privately agreed upon by you and the other parent.  You should attempt to agree on such other expenses with the other parent. 

How does the court account for medical expenses, such as uncovered health care expenses? 

A parent with medical insurance will generally be required to keep that medical insurance in place for the minor child(ren).  The judge will divide any uncovered medical expenses between the parents in an equitable manner, usually in proportion to each parent’s income.

How can I make sure I receive enough child support? 

It is important for you to account for your expenses and to apportion monthly expenses between both yourself and your child(ren).  It is a good idea to keep a list of all your household monthly expenses.  You are the one best equipped to fully understand your financial situation and needs.  If you need the judge to deviate from the Guidelines, you will need to justify that need.

If I am ordered to pay child support, do I have to make the payments? 

Yes.  As a parent, you are required to share in the financial responsibility of your child(ren).  If you fail to pay child support, the court may order retroactive payments, and other consequences may occur.  There are a number of remedies available for enforcement.  If child support is determined by a separation agreement, then breach of contract will be the appropriate remedy.  If child support is payable under a court order, the order is enforceable through the contempt powers of the court. Private attorneys can assist custodial parents in the collection of child support. A number of remedies are available for the enforcement of child support including seizure of real estate and personal property, orders that bonds be posted, assignment of wages, garnishment, arrest, and interception of income tax refunds.

Can child support payments be avoided by a parent filing for bankruptcy? 

No.  Child support obligations are not dischargeable through bankruptcy. 

How long is child support paid? 

In general, child support payments are paid until the child(ren)’s 18th birthday or until the child(ren) graduates from high school, whichever occurs later (child support payments may extend to the age of 20 if the child(ren) is making reasonable efforts to complete high school). 

Can both parents agree to extend child support payments? 

Yes.  You may always agree through a separation agreement or court order by consent to a higher age.  There are also circumstances where support will be extended, such as in the case of a child(ren) who is mentally or physically incapable of self-support.  In such cases, North Carolina law requires support for as long as the child(ren) is incapable of self-support. 

Will child support ever end earlier than my child(ren)’s 18th birthday? 

If the child(ren) becomes legally emancipated prior to his/her 18th birthday, child support payments will terminate. 

What if I share custody with the other parent? 

Under North Carolina law, both parents are required to share in the financial support of his/her child(ren).  Except in rare cases, there will always be a child support payment required. 

Does visitation reduce child support payments? 

No.  Unless a court order or your separation agreement specifically call for a reduction in payment for the child(ren) due to visitation with the other parent, the amount of child support payment will not be reduced. 

What if I am denied visitation? Do I still have to pay child support? 

Yes.  North Carolina law does not allow for the withholding of child support due to a denial of visitation.  Under North Carolina law, denial of visitation is not a justification for failing to pay child support.  Likewise, lack of child support payment is not a legal excuse for denying the other parent visitation rights.  Both visitation and child support are separate obligations. 

Does North Carolina allow for garnishment of wages for child support? 

Yes.  Wage garnishment may be ordered for up to forty percent (40%) of the net pay.  Seeking wage garnishment requires a court proceeding or the help of the Child Support Enforcement Office.  It is only available if a parent is violating a court order for child support and does not apply if child support is only dictated by a separation agreement. 

Can child support be modified? 

Yes.  However, the approach to modification will differ depending on whether the original award is embodied in a court order or a separation agreement. If child support is by court order, the party must show “changed circumstances.” This change must be both “substantial and material.” This standard puts a heightened burden on the party seeking to change the amount of support.

The court only considers changes since the entry of the most recent order. Its examination would focus on the reasonable needs of the child(ren), each parent’s relative ability to pay, and all the other financial factors taken into account under the Guidelines. If child support is dictated by a separation agreement, the standard for modification requires only that the moving party show the amount of support necessary to meet the reasonable needs of the child(ren) at the time of the hearing. The amount which the parties have previously agreed upon is presumed reasonable but will only be used as some evidence of the appropriate level of support. In other words, the trial court can disregard a prior settlement over the amount of child support, even if the parties previously deemed the amount to be fair.

What if the other parent and I have privately agreed to child support obligations?  Can the court overrule our agreement? 

Yes.  Although you and the other parent may set child support obligations in your separation agreement, the court still has supervisory power and may, absent the parties’ consent and during a child(ren)’s minority, enter an order of child support and/or modify an existing order based on a showing of changed circumstances. The fact that child support is provided for in an agreement does not mean that the court cannot order a different amount of support to be paid. Also, if there is a pre-existing court order for child support, a showing of changed circumstances can convince the court to alter the amount of support.

What are the tax consequences of child support? 

Unlike alimony, child support payments are not taxable to the recipient and may not be claimed as a tax deduction by the payor. 

What if I or the other parent remarries or has other child(ren) from a new relationship? Will that affect court-ordered child support obligations?

Generally, this situation will not affect child support obligations to child(ren) from a prior relationship.  The only recourse for a parent wishing to lower his/her child support obligation for a child(ren) from a prior relationship would be through a motion to the court to deviate from the child support Guidelines. To do so, the other parent would have to show that the current child support obligation was unfairly burdensome or unjust in some way.

Will stepparents ever be required to pay child support? 

Generally, a stepparent is not required to pay child support for a spouse’s minor child(ren) from a prior marriage. However, under certain circumstances, a stepparent may be required to pay child support. If the stepparent takes the child(ren) into his/her home in such a way that he/she becomes ‘in loco parentis’ (Latin for “in the place of the parent”) to the child(ren), then the stepparent assumes an obligation that continues so long as the relationship lasts, even without adoption. This doesn’t require the stepparent to continue the support after a divorce, though, without a formalized agreement. Contributions of a third party may be used to support a deviation from Guidelines.

From the author: North Carolina Child Support Lawyers