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Divorce: Child Support and Alimony

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

There are two situations where the courts will rule that a portion of one partner's income must be given to their ex-partner.

  • Child Support involves taking wages so as to insure that minor children can receive adequate care.
  • Spousal Support (also known as alimony), involves taking wages so as to insure that an economically disadvantaged spouse can continue to live comfortably after marriage has terminated.

pen on checkChild support payments are routinely granted as part of modern divorce and are sized according to rules determined by state law. Spousal support, on the other hand, used to be routinely granted, but has recently become somewhat harder to obtain. When spousal support is obtained these days, it is more likely to be time-limited in nature and designed to provide a transition period during which employable skills can be obtained, rather than the open-ended guarantee of income it used to be. Unlike child support which is fixed in amount based on published rules, spousal support amounts are determined by the judge based on his or her estimation of each partner's relative earning power, and how the couple arranged their respective roles with respect to earning and housekeeping when they were married. Spousal support is most likely to be awarded to partners who sacrificed business careers for parenting and housekeeping roles and who were economically dependent on their partner for that reason. States vary as to when child support payments end, with varying states terminating support at ages 18, 19 and 21 or tying child support termination to a child's high school graduation. Some states also may require parents to contribute towards a child's college education under certain circumstances. In contrast to child support, spousal support has no fixed termination; it ends when the judge says it ends (if it ever ends).

As is the case with custody agreements, child and spousal support agreements are hard to change once they have been agreed upon and endorsed by the courts. For this reason, it is important to use foresight when crafting support arrangements so that future eventualities are covered. Building cost of living increases into a spousal support arrangement, for instance, helps to insure that inflation doesn't devalue the support amount.

Collecting child support

Not all divorced parents like the idea of having to support their children. Some parents who are ordered to pay child support fail to do so on a timely basis, or fail to pay support at all. It is thus sometimes necessary for custodial parents who have been awarded child support to take action to collect what they are due.

It used to be very difficult to force a 'deadbeat' spouse to pay child support. Fortunately, states have recognized the problem and have put laws in place that make it easier to enforce child support awards. Today, many states will punish spouses who won't pay child support by suspending their driver's licenses, or even sending them to jail. The states have also put in place mechanisms that make it easier for custodial spouses to get their duly awarded child support money. Many states now require employers to report all new hires. An "income withholding order" can be filed with the court, resulting in a court order that instructs an employer to withhold money from a known 'deadbeat' ex-spouse's paycheck, and instead send that money to the custodial spouse.

If simple polite requests for payment fail, and the ex-spouse who owes money is too unstable employment-wise to make an "income withholding order" work out, other collection alternatives are possible. A custodial spouse can contract with a collection agency to arrange for payments to be made in a timely manner. Collection agencies are generally very good at finding and collecting court-ordered money, but they will take a significant portion of collected money as their fee for performing their services. The collections route is thus only attractive if no alternative means is available for obtaining the money. Hiring a lawyer to collect the money is also likely to work, but as with the collections agencies, is also likely to be expensive.