What Is Child Support?

A parent holds their child.

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Child support is a series of payments made by one parent to the other parent or legal guardian to help cover the cost of raising a child. Payments are meant to go toward expenses such as food, health care, clothing, education, and shelter.

Key Takeaways

  • Child support is meant to help cover the living expenses of a child by delivering financial payments to the parent with primary custody.
  • Most states follow the income shares model to determine the total child support obligation.
  • Child support agencies also help determine paternity, enforce payments, and locate the other parent.

How Child Support Works

Whether you’re going through a divorce, separation, or cutting ties with the parent of your child, you’ll likely need financial support to meet the demands of raising a child. Child support is meant to help fill the financial burden left by your partner. In short, it’s payments that the parent not taking care of the child pays to the parent who is taking care of the child.


While the two are commonly intertwined, it should be noted that there are distinct differences between child support and alimony.

In general, to get child support, you’ll need to apply for it through state or tribal courts. In some cases, though, you can reach an agreement with your partner without going to court.

Child support is more than just court-ordered monetary payments. It also helps custodial and non-custodial parents with additional services such as:

  • Establishing paternity
  • Locating the other parent
  • Enforcing any child support orders
  • Collecting and distributing payments in some states
  • Reviewing and revising child support orders where appropriate

Establishing child support in any state involves roughly the same steps, but it varies depending on your location. Here’s how child support typically works:

  1. The custodial parent who cares for and lives with the child most or all of the time (“custodial parent”) applies for a child support order.
  2. The other parent is located using basic information such as name, date of birth, Social Security number, address, and work location.
  3. The child support agency establishes paternity if it’s not already established.
  4. The local child support agency calculates a reasonable support payment and establishes a support order.
  5. The non-custodial parent sets up support payments or has them deducted from their paycheck.
  6. If the full amount of support payments isn’t collected, the child support agency utilizes enforcement remedies to collect the money owed.

Example of Child Support

Let’s say you and your child’s parent decide to part ways. If you have primary custody of your child and need support, you and the other parent might arrange an informal agreement for their financial contribution toward the needs of your child. You’ll need the court to approve the agreement. If you can’t reach an informal agreement, you could proceed with applying for a support order with your state child support agency.


Filing for child support in any state follows a set of guidelines that determines the total financial obligation. As of 2022, 41 states follow the income shares model, which takes both your and your ex-partner’s income into account. Other types of models include the Melson formula, percentage of income, and hybrid.

The amount of child support would be equivalent to the proportion of financial support the child would have received from their other parent had the family remained intact; for example, if your monthly income is $1,000 and your ex-partner’s monthly income is $3,000, you would have had a total household income of $4,000 per month.

Each state’s basic child support obligations tend to vary. Let’s say your state’s basic child support obligation starts at $400, and additional expenses are added, such as childcare ($100). That gives you a presumptive obligation of $800. The presumptive obligation is prorated between both of you based on the percentage of income you contribute.

The child support calculation for the income shares model looks like this:

  Custodial Parent Non-Custodial Parent
Income $1,000 $3,000
Percentage of combined income ($4,000) 25% 75%
Presumptive obligation $800 x 25% = $200 $800 x 75% = $600

So, you’d be responsible for $200 of child-rearing costs while your ex-partner is responsible for $600 of the shared costs.

Requirements for Child Support

To be eligible to collect child support, you’ll need to meet a few basic requirements:

  • You must be the child’s parent or have custody of them.
  • The child must be under 18 years old in most states and under 21 years old in other states.
  • Parentage must be established and the non-custodial parent must be located.

During the application, you’ll also need to provide the following documents:

  • Your personal information (date of birth, Social Security number, address, etc.)
  • The other parent’s personal information
  • Income information for the non-custodial parent, such as pay stubs
  • Your child’s birth certificate
  • Your child support order divorce decree, or separation agreement
  • Information about your income and assets
  • Information about your child’s expenses


For parents going through divorce proceedings, child support is often decided on during divorce negotiations alongside other issues such as visitation, property, and spousal support. If no agreement is reached on these matters, it may go to trial where a judge makes the final decision.

How To Apply for Child Support

Applying for child support begins with finding your state’s child support agency. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) helps you do this with a drop-down menu on its website that takes you directly to your state’s website.

In some cases, you can apply for child support online. To make the process go as smoothly as possible, come prepared with all the information you can. You may even decide to involve an attorney once your application goes to a child support hearing.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much is child support?

The amount you pay in child support differs depending on the income and custody arrangements between the parents, along with other factors. The average monthly child support payment in 2017 was $604, which is the latest information the Census Bureau has published.

How does child support work?

Child support can be court-ordered or applied for through a state agency. In some cases, it’s agreed on without going to court. It helps the custodial parent cover the costs of childrearing by collecting and sending an established monthly amount to the child’s legal guardian or custodial parent.

What is child support used for?

Child support is used to cover the basic living expenses associated with raising a child. This includes health care, educational costs, shelter, clothing, food, and other essentials.

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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. National Conference of State Legislatures. “Child Support Guideline Models.”

  2. National Conference of State Legislatures. “Termination of Child Support.”

  3. Department of Health and Human Services. “What Documents Do I Need To Bring to the Child Support Office?

  4. Illinois Courts. “Divorce With Children Overview.”

  5. Census Bureau. "The Regular Receipt of Child Support: 2017."

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