What the Child Support Modification Process Actually Looks Like

child support modification

There are nearly 14 million single parents in America with custody of their children. Around half of those have some form of child support arrangement in place. 

Almost 90 percent of such agreements are court-ordered. Most were established at the time of separation. 

But what happens when your needs or life circumstances change? Requesting a child support modification is possible but it’s important to understand the process before you jump in.  

Keep reading to learn how it works and to get powerful co-parenting tips that can make the process easier for everyone.

Who Can Request a Child Support Modification?

Child support modifications can be requested by:

  • The custodial parent
  • The non-custodial parent
  • Other legal caregivers

In rare cases, a state or local child support agency may request a child support review. This typically happens when other legal proceedings bring inappropriate child support agreements to the agency’s attention. 

When Can You Ask for a Child Support Modification?

The child support review process is serious and always requires court involvement. For this reason, there are legal limits on when and how often parents can undergo it. 

Generally, parties can request modifications when the:

  • Child’s needs have changed
  • Custodial parent’s circumstances have changed
  • Non-custodial parent’s circumstances have changed
  • Child support agreement is more than three years old
  • Relevant child support laws have changed

For example, you might request a child support payment review if: 

  • You or your ex have changed jobs or experienced a significant change of income
  • You or your ex have remarried or had more children
  • Your custody arrangement has changed 
  • Your child’s health needs or access to health insurance has changed
  • You have suffered a health crisis or other emergency
  • The non-custodial parent becomes incarcerated, is deployed by the United States military, or becomes disabled  

Custodial Parents or Caregivers

It can be tempting for custodial parents to request child support reviews regularly in hopes of receiving more support. It is important to resist that temptation, however. 

This is because there are hard limits to how often you may request a child support modification. Child support laws vary by state, but almost all states limit parents to one or two reviews every 24 to 36 months.

If you ask for reviews over small changes in your ex’s income, you can quickly use up your allotted requests with very little to show for it. Once your requests are used up, you will not be able to petition for any other changes until the 24 or 36 month waiting period has elapsed.

If your circumstances, your child’s needs, or your ex’s income change during that time, you will be unable to request the additional support you might otherwise have been entitled to until the waiting period ends.

To avoid finding yourself in that unpleasant and stressful situation, only request reviews when they are truly warranted. A good rule of thumb is to wait until you expect to see a change of at least 20 percent or $100 a month to your support payments. 

Non-Custodial Parents

Non-custodial parents should be careful when requesting child support modifications, as well.

Generally, courts will only entertain requests from non-custodial parents to alter child support payments when they have experienced a sharp drop in their income or serious changes to their health. In every case, courts require that non-custodial parents be able to clearly document their change in circumstances and show that it is significant enough to warrant altering the agreement. 

It is also important to be aware of the specific laws in your state. For example, in many states choosing to quit your job does not merit a change to your child support payments.

You will still be expected to continue paying the same amount on time each month. Failure to do so can have grave consequences. You may wish to consider consulting a child support lawyer before making big changes to your employment or income. 

Losing Income

With all of that said, if your circumstances do dramatically and involuntarily change, it is important to act quickly. 

Your existing child support requirements do not change when your circumstances change, even if those changes are out of your control. Payments are not altered or suspended when you request a review. You remain responsible for your pre-existing level of support unless or until new terms are approved by the court. 

Child support cannot be retroactively altered or reduced, either. Even applying for bankruptcy will not eliminate back payments due.

Thus, if you lose your job or take a much lower-paying job, it is critical that you apply for a child support review immediately. In the meantime, keep making your payments to the best of your ability to demonstrate good faith. 

Temporary Modifications

Not all changes to child support payments need to be permanent. In many cases, courts will approve temporary child support modifications in response to short-term or emergency circumstances. 

Common examples include when: 

  • Your child experiences a costly medical emergency or requires surgery
  • The non-custodial parent has a medical emergency or significant temporary change to finances
  • Your child is temporarily entrusted to the non-custodial parent when the custodial parent is unable to take care of them

In most cases, temporary modifications last only as long as the emergency or special circumstances that prompted them. When the situation is resolved, both parties revert to the terms of their previous agreement.

Permanent Modifications 

Permanent modifications to child support are appropriate when circumstances permanently change for the child or one or both of the parents involved. This includes changes to:

  • Income
  • Health
  • Family composition 
  • Cost of living

Changes to relevant child support laws can also prompt permanent changes to your child support agreement. 

What Information Will You Need to Request a Child Support Review?

One of the steps most overlooked by parents investigating how to modify child support is gathering information. The court will not simply take anyone’s word for changes to their life, income, or needs. To request a child support payment review, you will need to be able to document your claims. 

Depending on your circumstances and the basis of your request, this can include providing proof of: 

  • Parental income
  • Parents’ benefits (including health insurance) 
  • Child care costs
  • Health records
  • Incarceration or deployment status 
  • Remarriage or the birth of a new child
  • Existing custody arrangements 

In the event that your income has dropped, you may also be required to provide evidence that you made or are making good-faith attempts to find new employment. Specifically, the court may look to see that you searching for work that pays the same amount as your previous position or more. If you are not, you may need to explain the discrepancy. 

Uncontested Changes

If you are fortunate, you and your ex have been able to forge a friendship in the wake of your divorce. If so, you may be able to amicably negotiate new child support terms between yourselves or with the help of a private mediator. 

These arrangements still need to be ratified by the court. Often, however, you can skip the formal hearing in favor of a faster, more informal “in-office negotiation” to get that approval. This is less costly and less stressful for everyone, making it a great option if your circumstances allow. 

How the Child Support Modification Process Works

Unfortunately, healthy and positive communication with your ex isn’t always possible. In that case, you’ll need to rely on your state’s formal child support review process for modifications. The exact process can vary slightly from state to state, so it vital that you consult your state’s laws or a legal professional to ensure you follow the steps correctly. 

In general, however, the process looks like this. 

1. Gather Information

Get certified copies of whatever records you need to prove changes to your costs, living situation, or health, where relevant. If you are applying for a modification because you believe that your ex’s income has changed, the court will require them to provide that information. 

You may also wish to consult a lawyer during this step. 

2. Apply to the Court

In most states, you submit your request for a child support review to the court that handled your initial child support order. If you are struggling with unpaid child support or require other assistance, it may be helpful to contact your state’s child support agency instead. They can assist you with the process. 

3. Attend the Hearing

The court will schedule a hearing to conduct your child support payment review. If you have secured legal counsel, your lawyer will attend with you. Bring copies of your documentation and be prepared to explain your situation and why you think changes are warranted. 

The judge assigned to your case will review the facts and determine what changes, if any, are appropriate. If they find that changes are warranted, they will modify your child support agreement and specify when the changes go into effect. Be sure to obtain a new copy of your agreement for your records. 

Automatic Adjustments 

In some states, such as California, child support agreements can contain automatic adjustment clauses. The cost of living adjustment is a prime example. Automatic adjustment clauses call for child support payments to automatically be modified at set intervals based on external factors. 

For example, each year your payments may be adjusted to compensate for increases in the cost of living in your area. You do not need to request these changes and they will not count against your allotted review requests. 

The court will keep track of when these are due, calculate the new rates, and notify both parties when the changes go into effect.  

How Long Does It Take?

There is no set time limit on the child support review process. Typically, when you file for a review the court is required to respond to or act on your filing within a certain amount of time. For example, they may have to notify your ex of the filing within 180 days. 

How long it takes to complete the process will depend on, among other things: 

  • The availability of court resources
  • Your ex’s cooperativeness
  • The complexity of your case

For example, if the court has difficulty locating your ex to serve them with papers or if they are incarcerated or deployed and difficult to get ahold of, going through the review may be a slow process. Similarly, if either party is alleging medical conditions the court may require second opinions, expert consultations, or other steps that delay reaching a decision. 

Simple cases in which both parties cooperate and have good documentation upfront will, of course, go the fastest. 

Hiring a Lawyer

You are not legally required to hire a lawyer to assist you during a child support review. It is legal in every state to initiate the process and represent yourself from start to finish. Unless you and your ex have a highly amicable divorce, however, it is always in your best interest to hire legal counsel.

In all cases, if your ex has a lawyer then you need one, too.  

Family law attorneys understand how to modify child support in your state. They have a deep understanding of the standards, loopholes, and other details that can make or break your case. Their assistance can make the difference between setting up child support arrangements that genuinely provide the best outcomes for your children and muddling through with agreements that serve no one.

If you cannot afford a lawyer, talk to your state’s child support agency. They can provide you with an attorney or assist you in finding qualified and affordable legal services. 

What Does Requesting a Child Support Payment Review Cost?

It is impossible to put a single number or range on the costs of a child support payment review and modification. Costs not only vary by state, but by the situation. 

Uncontested cases that merely need rubber-stamping by a judge are always the most affordable. Contentious and complicated cases are understandably more likely to be expensive. At the same time, free or low-cost legal services can enable qualifying applicants to deal with even the messiest of cases for little or no money at all. 

If cost is a concern, contact your local child support agency for help and guidance. 

Handling Divorce and Child Support Well

Handling child support modification cases is only one of the challenges involved in dealing with divorce in a healthy, positive way. Strong co-parenting skills can make this and other day-to-day concerns easier and less stressful to deal with. Check out 2houses’s great library of co-parenting tips and articles to get more information on building your best life after divorce.  

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