How Does Child Support Work?

By Brandi Brown , last updated July 4, 2011

Child support starts in a legal setting of some sort. In more amicable situations, mediation may be all that parents need to help them sort through custody issues, but others may use a judge to help make decisions about child support. Either way the process should be similar once an order is in place.

Determination of Amount

In some cases, the parties and their attorneys can come together through mediation to determine who will pay child support to whom and how much. These cases are the simplest. They usually occur when one party has been and will continue to be the primary child-rearing parent. If both parties agree, then the mediator will enter the decision with the judge overseeing the case, and the judge will agree to accept the deal or reject it. In most cases, the judge will accept any reasonable deal.

Should the two parties not be able to come to an agreement a judge will hear evidence and arguments from both parties and make a decision. These arguments typically include how much each person earns or could earn from employment as well as a consideration of the amount of time that children will spend with each parent. Once the judge makes a decision, he or she will enter that information with a state agency charged with overseeing child support.

State Pay or Self-Regulation

Many states require that people involved in child support cases use a state routing agency for the money. Some states use third-party processors for these payments, which usually results in a small fee for the non-custodial parent. With these systems, the non-custodial parent pays money to the state agency, and that agency passes the money along to the custodial parent. The idea behind this system is that it prevents problems with non-payment.

In states without this type of oversight, one parent may request using such an agency for payment. This arrangement protects one party from problems resulting from the other person either not paying or claiming non-payment. Self-pay child support is the old-fashioned way it was done, but it is becoming more rare. With self-pay, the person who owes child support simply gives that money to the other parent on the agreed up dates.


When circumstances change, one parent or the other may seek a change in a child support order. For example, someone may lose a job, or the other parent may get a job making significantly more money. Life circumstances change as well, and custody changes can alter child support orders. In these cases, the parents need to contact the family court system in the place where the original order stands. Some family court systems have a child support change form that does not require returning to court. In these cases, a court worker, usually a paralegal, determines the new child support amount based on a statewide formula. Without an automatic system or agreement, the parties will return to court, and the party bringing the suit will need to show evidence for why he or she wants the support order modified.

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