What Does Child Support Cover?

by Team eLocal
Shot of a mother and daughter busy at a dishwashing machine

Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.

Child support laws help ensure that your child has financial resources available from both parents, but these laws don't always feel fair.

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You might think court-ordered child support is too much or not enough, or you may even worry that the money is being used for the wrong things and your child isn't getting the benefits they deserve. Understanding what child support covers can help you choose your next steps. 

What Is Child Support?

Child support is money paid to help cover a minor child's expenses. If you have a child who doesn't live with you full-time, a court may order you to pay child support. One parent usually pays child support payments to the other in cases where the couple is divorced or living in separate households. However, courts may also order one or both parents to pay support to another legal guardian if neither parent has custody of the child.

A parent may be required to pay child support even if their child lives with them part-time, such as when both parents share custody of the child. Courts often consider the following factors when calculating child support amounts:

  • Each parent's income
  • How much time the child spends at each household
  • Whether one parent is paying for the child's health insurance or out-of-pocket medical expenses
  • Whether either party is financially responsible for other children
  • Education or daycare expenses for the child

The amount owed is usually calculated based on state child support guidelines and must be paid until a child turns 18 or finishes high school.  Judges can deviate from child support guidelines under certain circumstances.

Child support laws vary significantly between states, so you should check your local laws or speak with a family law attorney to understand the rules that might apply to you.

What Expenses Is Child Support Intended to Cover?

Lawmakers and courts intend for child support to help cover a child's basic needs, including:

  • Food
  • Housing
  • Clothing and toiletries
  • Medical expenses
  • Toys
  • Daycare

Child support is supposed to cover specific expenses for a child, such as diapers or new shoes. However, support is also intended to help with household expenses that may be higher because of a child. For example, support money may contribute to rent because an extra bedroom is needed for the child.

Some states expect child support to cover portions of insurance, educational expenses and extracurricular activities. Courts often adjust child support to account for essential expenses such as daycare and health insurance. In some jurisdictions, adjustments for private school tuition or sports fees are only made if both parents agree to the child's enrollment.

Because parental income is a significant factor in many places, a higher-earning parent may have to pay child support, even if custody is shared. Child support laws in some states attempt to ensure that children enjoy consistent lifestyles at each parent's home, and a wealthy parent may be expected to pay support that goes beyond paying for a child's most basic needs.

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Can You Use Child Support Funds for Other Expenses?

Parties paying or receiving child support often have questions about exactly how the funds can be spent. Generally, there aren't strict limits on how child support funds may be used.

While courts expect child support to benefit the child, there's usually no requirement that the adult receiving those funds keep receipts or track spending. Child support funds may be deposited into the receiving adult's bank account, becoming part of their general household funds. Courts don't typically ask a parent to track how much of their utility bill was due to the child's water usage or which household groceries were for a particular child.

Sometimes the parent paying support may feel that child support is being spent improperly on things like:

  • Unnecessary toys
  • Fancy clothes
  • Furniture or other shared items
  • Items or services that enhance the lifestyle of the other parent with little benefit to the child

However, judges don't often evaluate how most child support is spent. Occasionally, a court may look at child support payments and spending if there are allegations that a child is being abused or neglected.

Sometimes the court may require that a portion of child support be paid to a third party or used for a specific purpose. Examples are funds for insurance premiums, tuition or child care. In these cases, the specific bill must be paid as required by a court order.

If you believe child support payments are being misused or the funds aren't sufficient for your child's needs, you may consider asking the court to modify your child support order. Remember that the requirements and procedures for seeking a modification vary by jurisdiction, so speaking with a child support lawyer can be helpful.

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