Paying child support can be frustrating for some people. I have many clients who are outraged that Mom is spending money on $100 jeans and Versace sunglasses when getting a check for $500 or $600 a month that is supposed to be for the kids, or Dad is paying support but Mom is refusing to allow him to see the kids. It isn’t always Mom who gets support and Dad who pays (it can be the other way around) but to make writing this simpler I’ve arbitrarily chosen to say that Mom is getting support in this post. Why pay when she’s wasting the money on luxury items or you’re not getting time with the children? The reason is simple: the Courts don’t look at it this way, and you will be held to account for it if you aren’t paying no matter what Mom does. So, if no support is being paid for six months, an arrears balance of unpaid support will have accumulated so that by the time it gets to Court and a decision is made on custody and support. There are more than a few people who are shocked to find out that the day they go to Court and get a decision, they are already found to be $3,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 behind. Don’t fall into this trap. Below the fold is a bit more in the way of explanation of how this works and why.
Child support is viewed as an issue separate from custody. The state of North Carolina takes the view that parents of minor children owe a duty of support to that child regardless of what sort of custody problems exist. The parent that is the primary custodian meets her support obligation by paying the child’s day-to-day expenses. The non-custodial parent meets that obligation by writing a check to cover some of those expenses. It isn’t the child’s fault that Mom and Dad can’t get along or that one is doing things to interfere with the other’s custody time or relationship with the child. So, that duty of support is always there for the non-custodial parent and if it goes unpaid, that balance is building all the time.
It doesn’t matter what Mom (or Dad) is spending their money on. Support is paid to the custodial parent, and the custodial parent keeps the lights on, a roof over the child’s head, and food on the table. If it frees up extra income for the custodial parent that lets her go to the beach for a couple days in the summer or buy that $100 pair of jeans, well the State of North Carolina doesn’t much care.
What should you be doing if your are a non-custodial parent? Paying. Beginning the first month that you are separated, you should be paying an amount that is as close to what the child support guidelines require. You can find an easy calculator for your situation at the North Carolina Child Support Enforcement Web site–just choose the child support worksheet A, B or C based on the custody arrangement you currently have.
Child support is based on the gross income of the parties. That’s before taxes or any other deductions. Count on your child support obligation being somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 week’s pay each month.
So, keep the following things in mind when you’re considering how much and whether you should be paying even when no Court has ordered it:
1. Custody and support are separate. You can’t claim that you don’t have an obligation to pay support because you’re not getting custody time.
2. Parents who refuse to pay support don’t tend to look very good in the eyes of a Judge when they do finally end up in Court. This can count as a very big black mark against you when trying to convince a Judge that you are the better custodial parent or should have more custodial time. Why should a Judge believe what you are telling him or her about your interest in the child’s welfare when you have already shown that money is what you’re most interested in?
3. If you aren’t paying support, that unpaid balance starts building. Once you get behind, it becomes very tough to get caught up. An arrears balance of four or five or six thousand dollars can take years to pay off. You risk having tax returns seized or having your drivers license suspended until it gets paid. It simply isn’t worth the months or years of trouble to avoid paying support at the beginning. Pay now, or pay later.
4. Voluntarily paying support can actually help your custody case. You can walk into Court and honestly tell the Judge that money is not your motiviation. Despite the other side’s bad behavior, you have done everything with an eye on what’s best for the child. And the other parent can’t make a very good argument that you want more custody time just to save some money. (I say this because it is a common argument made by a custodial parent, not because it is necessarily true).
Remember, getting the child support issue under control early will save you years of potential problems and it may help you win custody or more visitation down the road. So grit your teeth and get out your checkbook. It might be frustrating or even infuriating, but you’re going to be held accountable for it at some point so it is better to get ahead of the problem.
Two final, very important points: Keep good records! Never pay cash, always use money orders or checks so that you have evidence that you’ve been paying. And pay support directly to the other parent. Don’t hand checks to the children or anyone else, you may not get credit for it as actual support if you are not making a direct payment.