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Q: How and when can I modify a child support order?

“Child support” is a payment owed by a non-custodial parent to the parent in possession of a child to be used for support of the child’s health, education, and well-being. The courts use a formula to calculate the amount of child support payments based on the paying parent’s income and the child’s needs at the time of the award, but it is, of course, common for circumstances to change and parents to ask for modification of child support.

In private child support actions, a parent petitioning for modification of support must show a “material change in circumstances” from when the support was ordered or agreed upon. A material change that warrants an increase in child support might be new expenses related to a child’s health or increased needs of an older child. A material change that necessitates a decrease in support might be involuntary loss of employment or insurance coverage for the paying parent. If a support payment was ordered in a Department of Human Services case, then the parent can ask for a modification agreement with DHS. If the department agrees with the parent’s proposed modification, DHS will file the modification order with the court without having to petition for modification. DHS typically reviews its support orders every three years, and modifications made during these reviews do not have to show a material change.

Successful modifications to decrease support are generally not retroactive, meaning that the amount owed will decrease for future payments, but the parent still owes the original amount for all previous payments. Modifications for increase in support, however, are sometimes applied back to the time when the event that made the modification necessary occurred. In either scenario, it is beneficial to the parent in need of modification to take action as soon as possible.

Parents no longer have the duty to pay child support when a child reaches twenty-one years of age or is otherwise emancipated.A child is considered emancipated when he or she gets married, joins the military in full-time service, or is sentenced to two years of incarceration for a felony conviction. If any of these occurs, a court must find that the child is emancipated and the parent is released from paying child support. A court could also find that a child is emancipated when the child (if under eighteen) stops going to school full-time, has also moved out of the custodial parent’s home and works to support himself or herself, or cohabitates with another person without consent of the parent paying child support. In these situations, a court could find that the child is emancipated and order payments to stop, but it is not required to do so.

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