Child support is the amount of money that a court orders a parent or both parents to pay every month to help pay for their child's living expenses. California state law says that every parent has a duty to financially support his or her child.
Child support may be requested by either parent of a child, or by the person that has legal or physical custody of the child. There are different ways to ask for child support orders, depending on the situation. A parent can ask for child support alone, or as part of another family law court case, for example, a Divorce, or Domestic Violence case. If the parents of the child are not married, paternity (legal fatherhood) must be established before support can be requested.
If one of the parents has been getting public assistance (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF), or if a private case with the Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) has been opened, DCSS will automatically start a child support case against the other parent.
Child support is for the purpose of providing food, clothing, medical care and ability to get an education.
Federal and state laws say that both the father and mother of a child are responsible for the support of their children. If the parents are married at the time the child is born or conceived, both are responsible for supporting their child. If the parents are not married, then parentage must be established in order for the child to have a legal father. Because child support depends primarily upon both parties’ income and the percentage of time the child lives with them, either parent might be asked to pay child support to the other. However, the custodial parent is usually the parent that receives child support from the other parent.
If your parental rights are terminated, and you owe child support that was ordered before your rights were terminated, you are still required to pay the amount owed.
Note that the court, if requested to do so, may only order a termination of parental rights if someone else is prepared to adopt the child. The court generally will not order a termination of your parental rights if that would leave the child with only one parent responsible for his or her care and support.
If you already have another type of Family Law case open, for example, a Divorce, Paternity, or Domestic Violence case, you can complete and file an Order to Show Cause (Form packet L-0048) with the court to get a hearing date and have your case heard by a judicial officer.
If you do not have an existing case open with the court, and you are married or you are in a registered Domestic Partnership, and you are only asking for support, custody and/or visitation, you must file a Petition for Custody and Support of Minor Children (Form FL-260).
If you are not married, but you want to establish paternity and ask for child support, you must file a Petition to Establish a Parental Relationship (Form packet L-1026).
California courts generally will follow the California child support guidelines in determining the amount of child support that a parent owes.
Parents can agree (stipulate) on a support amount, but a judicial officer must approve the agreement.
The court form to use to tell the judge what child support amount you and the other parent have agreed on is a Stipulation to Establish or Modify a Child Support Order (Form FL-350) Both parents must sign the agreement. If the Department of Child Support Services has been involved in your case you will also need their signature.
If parents cannot agree on how much money is fair and reasonable to take care of their child, the court may be requested to order one parent to pay the other parent a specific amount of money every month to help pay for a child’s living expenses.
The judge must decide the child support amount based on a guideline calculation. California has established a formula to calculate guideline child support. Only in very limited circumstances can the judge order something other than the guideline amount. Basic child support does not include the cost of child care or uninsured medical expenses. These additional costs will be considered by the Court, and ordered in addition to guideline support. For help to ask the court for a “non-guideline” support order, contact the Office of the Family Law Facilitator.
The guideline calculation depends on:
- How much time each parent spends with their children,
- How much money the parents earn or can earn,
- How much other income each parent receives,
- How many children these parents have together,
- The actual tax filing status of each parent,
- Support of children from other relationships,
- Health insurance expenses,
- Mandatory union dues,
- Mandatory retirement contributions,
- The cost of sharing daycare and uninsured health-care costs, and
- Other factors.
Child support might also include the cost of special needs, such as:
- Traveling for visitation from one parent to another,
- Educational expenses, and
- Other special needs.
The legal duty of support continues until the child turns 18 years of age, and has graduated from high school; or turns 19 years old, whichever occurs first; marries; dies; or is legally free in some way, such as joining the military.
The court may also order that both parents continue to support a disabled adult child if that child cannot support him or herself.
Either parent may request to change or modify a child support order by filing an Request for Order (Form packet L-0048) or if you and the other parent have reached an agreement, you can submit a Stipulation to Establish or Modify Child Support and Order (Form FL-350). Changes in child support often make sense if either parent has had a significant change related to their income, the other parent's income, or the amount of time that each parent spends with the child. Once you request the court to modify the amount of child support, the court will make its decision based upon the current circumstances (mainly both parents’ income and timeshare with the child). This means that the child support amount could go either up or down.
NOTE: If you are the parent paying child support, you must continue to do so until the order is changed by the court. If you stop paying, you will still owe the full amount of support described in your current order, even though your situation may have changed. Also, if you stop paying child support, you will owe interest (at the rate of 10% per year) on any unpaid balance. This will be in addition to the current child support amount that you owe.
If support for more than one child is being requested, the guideline amount will automatically be divided among the children, unless the court orders otherwise. The court order will reflect the breakdown of the support payments for each child. The amounts are determined in a way so that when older children no longer receive child support, the amounts for the other children would be correct calculations of guideline support.
The court bases child support on a parent’s "net disposable income". This means the parent’s income after state and federal taxes. The court may award support based in part on bonuses, commissions, overtime and other supplemental or non-wage income if the court determines that this income is regularly occurring.
Certain income is NOT counted when determining a child support obligation. For example, the court cannot consider income from:
- General Assistance/General Relief; or
- SSI (Supplementary Security Income).
The court will calculate "timeshare" by comparing the amount of time that each parent has primary physical responsibility for the child. In general, this means that the court will generally count the number of hours or other portions of the day a parent spends with their child.
Federal and California laws require that every child support order include an order for medical support. This means that the Court may order one or both parents to provide health insurance for the child.
A parent’s earning capacity is determined based upon both the parent’s ability and opportunity to work. If the parent is able to work but is not, the judge may estimate what he or she could earn using their work history or other information. If the judge does not have other information to use in estimating a parent's earnings, he or she might use the minimum wage amount. If a parent has no ability or opportunity to work (if the parent is in jail or disabled), the court cannot assign an income to that parent.
The court will consider different factors when assigning an income to a party. The court may set an income to be used in computing child support that is higher than the parent’s actual income. This might happen if the parent’s earning capacity is higher than the actual income and it would be in the best interest of the children or if a parent isn’t working and could be, the court may set an income amount to that parent.
If it appears to the court that a parent who could work is not working and not making serious efforts to find work, the court may order a person to “seek-work”. A “seek work” order requires a person to actively look for a job.
Failure to comply with a seek-work order could permit the court to set income to the party and to make an earning capacity order.
Even if a parent is not working, the court may order him or her to pay an amount of support consistent with what it believes that parent could earn. This is known as the parent’s “earning capacity.”
- In certain situations, even though a parent has no income the court will order him or her to pay child support based on his or her earning capacity.
- A court may also require a parent to attend job training, job placement, or other work programs.
If you and the other parent live in different states, you may use the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) to enforce your child support order. The UIFSA requires states to cooperate with each other to establish, enforce or modify child support orders.
When parents or guardians have a case with a child support order, and they live in different states or countries, the child support order can be registered in the county where one of the parents or guardians lives. Once the order is registered, a parent or guardian can request that the order be enforced and/or modified in that county’s courts.
Your local child support agency can assist you with starting your case or you can contact the Orange County Family Law Facilitator or Self Help Center for assistance.
Be aware that child support laws vary from state to state and not all foreign countries have agreements with the United States to establish or enforce child support orders. This can be a complicated process. You may wish to seek legal advice for assistance.
The Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) is the state agency responsible for child support enforcement. California's Child Support Services Program works with custodial and non-custodial parents and guardians to ensure children and families receive court ordered financial and medical support. Each county has a Local Child Support Agency (LCSA) office that can help parents establish parentage (paternity) and child support orders, and collect the support owed.
The Local Child Support Agency in your county will help any parent who requests assistance with establishing paternity (legal fatherhood); obtaining a child support order and/or a medical support (health insurance) order; locating a non-custodial parent and find his or her income and/or assets; enforcing and collecting orders for support; and getting an increase or decrease ("modification") in an existing order, if appropriate.