How to Collect Child Support

Every parent is financially responsible for their child

Mom taking daughter to school
Photo: Mother Image/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Having a child carries with it an enormous financial responsibility. According to the USDA, the average cost of raising a child tops $233,000. 

For parents who assume primary duties for raising a child, child support can be an important part of their financial picture. Unfortunately, not all parents who are owed child support receive it regularly. In some cases, child support is never received at all. The U.S Department of Health and Human Services estimates that approximately $114 billion in past-due child support remained outstanding, as of April 2017. 

Unpaid child support is one of the largest debts in this country and while millions in tax dollars go to help support children and provide medical care, parents still have to assume individual responsibility. Understanding when child support must be paid and by whom is critical to understanding how to file for and collect it. 

Who Is Obligated to Pay Child Support?

Who is responsible for child support payments? This is sometimes a difficult question to answer.

The non-custodial parent, the non-custodial adoptive parent, both biological parents, and sometimes a non-biological parent taking on the responsibility of parenting long term are responsible parties. You don’t have to be married to be responsible for paying child support and divorcing your spouse won’t automatically leave you off the hook. If you're the biological parent, then you'll need to pay your portion of child support.

Typically, when child support is ordered it must be paid until the child turns 18, or until they've graduated high school. The rules are different in each state, however. There are times when a special needs child will continue to receive child support beyond 18 years of age. If a child is adopted by someone else or is active military, then child support payments no longer apply. If this is the case, the non-custodial parent will need to petition the courts to release them for further payments.


In most cases, stepparents are not held financially responsible for paying child support that's owed by their spouse. Their income is also not included in child support calculations.

How to File for Child Support

A court order is needed to begin the child support process. This can happen at any time, whether it's just after the birth of a child or after you've been separated--but not divorced--for several months or years. As a rule, however, it's often better to apply sooner, rather than later. Child support typically begins on the date the order is filed. It is not retroactive prior to the date of the filing which is why it’s so important to begin the process as soon as possible.

Court orders are available through your local child support agency. You can choose to have the agencies represent you, hire an attorney or represent yourself. An attorney is usually the best idea because they don’t have an emotional interest in the case and will not be swayed by excuses. Family law attorneys also have specialized knowledge and experience relevant to child support and custody issues. If you choose to represent yourself you need to be sure you’ve equipped with as much information as possible. 

Obtaining a Court Order

Obtaining a court order is easier than it sounds and it’s something you’ll need to do if you want another party to have a legal obligation to pay child support. Without a court order, the other parent has no legal obligation and even though you may have agreed to mutual terms of payment you’ll have little recourse if they stop making payments.

For assistance in collecting your child support, seek help through the Child Support Enforcement Agency in your area. They'll provide help in locating an out of state parent, provide free attorney advisers, and file information through the district attorney’s office. When a parent does not pay child support the agency will help you collect and file the proper paperwork to ensure you get paid.

To collect from a non-paying parent out of state, the local district attorney’s office will file the proper paperwork with the court system. Your state court will contact the court in the state the non-paying parent is living in and begin the process of collecting. This doesn’t always work, so feel free to do your own detective work in locating the parent and their place of employment. The sooner they can be found, the faster you can get through the process.


A parent does not need to be granted custody or visitation by the court to be required to pay child support. Violating the terms of a support order can result in fines and/or jail time for the non-paying parent.

Collecting Child Support

Collecting child support and keeping up with payments is important. One of the first things the courts may do is garnish wages from the parent’s paycheck so that they can’t claim to miss a payment. But many times a parent will quit work or move from job to job to avoid garnishment and it can be difficult to keep tracking them down. Even unemployment payments can be used to catch up back child support so you need to stay on top of things and make sure you’re getting every penny you deserve. It’s also possible to have property seized, especially if it’s to collect a lot of back payments that were never made. 

For the business owner, a business license or professional license can be revoked for non-payment. If they want to continue earning in their current business they need to catch up on the back child support in order to have the licenses returned. Many professionals are not allowed to practice without their license so they usually have a great incentive to pay up. One thing a parent can't do, however, is filing bankruptcy to avoid paying child support


Back child support may not be able to be collected indefinitely. Check with your state laws to see if there's a statute of limitations on how long you can pursue a non-paying parent for back support.

When trying to collect back child support you just have to keep pushing and don’t give up. Seek information from different reliable sources and follow every avenue you can. Child support is to help pay for the support of the child and you are entitled to your fair share. Most parents try very hard to take care of their children, but that's not always the case. Regardless of how your relationship with the child’s other parent ended don’t feel guilty about what you’re doing. They have a role in raising their child even if they aren’t at home and it’s up to you to make sure they assume financial responsibility for their part.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How soon can you file for child support?

While it ultimately depends on local laws, you will likely have the option to file for child support as soon as the child is born. If a parent has reason to believe the other parent won't financially support the child, they may have a compelling reason to file for child support—whenever that occurs.

When do child support payments start?

Child support payments could potentially start as soon as the court order is issued. The method of payment could impact the timeline a bit. For example, if the payments are withheld from employee paychecks, then you'll have to wait for the next paycheck cycle.

Was this page helpful?
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. USDA. "The Cost of Raising a Child."

  2. Office of Child Support Enforcement. "Who Owes the Child Support Debt?"

Related Articles