As a divorce lawyer, I spend a lot of time talking about child support. A lot. It’s a topic of confusion and contention, but it doesn’t have to be. I think a lot of the child support issues family law attorneys confront are caused by a lack of information. That seems like an easy thing to address.
Illinois is one of a several states that requires a parent to contribute to his or her child’s expenses. Specifically, Illinois requires parents to contribute to the medical bills, daycare costs, school fees, and extracurricular activity expenses of their children. This is an obligation entirely separate from child support. So, if a parent is contributing to those four categories of expenses, what’s child support for?
Why Do Parents Pay Child Support?
Parents pay child support due to a long-standing societal belief that a child’s care is primarily the responsibility of the child’s parents, and that welfare and public assistance are options of last resort.
This societal goal became clear in 1974 with the passage of the Family Support Act, or Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. The Family Support Act requires states receiving federal funds for child welfare to establish a child support enforcement agency to collect unpaid child support. Again, the logic behind this was that the federal government should not be called upon to provide welfare when either parent was not meeting their financial obligations.
The U.S. Advisory Panel on Child Support Guidelines, published in 1987 by the United States Department of Health and Human Services, states that both parents must support their children and that “[c]hild support must cover a child’s basic needs as a first priority, but, to the extent either parent enjoys a higher than subsistence-level standard of living, the child is entitled to share in the benefit of that improved standard.”
There’s good reason for all of this. 1 in 4 children are owed child support, 27% of parents owed child support live below the poverty line, and single parents making less than $10,000 a year account for 70% of all outstanding child support cases. The cost of unpaid child support is well-established.
So why do parents pay child support? Parents pay child support so their children stay off welfare and enjoy the benefits of both parents’ income.
What Is Child Support Used For?
Chid support is used to meet the basic living expenses of a child. That includes things like food, clothing, a clean and safe home, etc.
Illinois is one of several states that may require a parent to contribute to expenses in addition to a child’s basic necessities. In this context, child support is for the day-to-day costs of raising a child at home and attempts to replicate the economic benefit of a two-parent household. Child expenses are above-and-beyond costs that are either not as routine as paying the electric bill or buying groceries. Contribution to child expenses is within the court’s discretion. If a judge doesn’t think it’s necessary, or if child support is sufficient, no contribution may be required.
What Other Expenses Do Parents Have To Pay For?
For this post, let’s limit the conversation to children under age 18, such that we can exclude a discussion about college expenses. In Illinois, there are four categories of child expenses recognized by statute: medical bills, daycare costs, school fees, and extracurricular activity expenses. Illinois’ child support statute goes into some detail to ensure that parents don’t abuse the obligation.
Extracurricular activities: extracurricular activity expenses must be intended to enhance educational, athletic, social, or cultural development.
School Expenses: school expenses must also be intended to enhance educational, athletic, social, or cultural development.
Child Care: must be reasonable in cost and be reasonably necessary to enable a parent or custodian to be employed, to attend school or vocational training for employment purposes, or to job hunt. In Illinois, child care expenses are pro-rated by statute.
Medical Expenses: both parents have an obligation to contribute tot he reasonable health care needs of the child not covered by insurance including unreimbursed medical, dental, orthodontic, or vision expenses and any prescription medication for the child not covered by insurance.
How Can I Know What My Money Is Being Used For?
This is perhaps the most common question I get about child support. I often hear about parents using child support payments for themselves while neglecting their children. It’s worth noting that the allegations are raised far more often than they are substantiated. Out of every handful of allegations of parents misapplying child support payments, only one or two have any basis.
The biggest problem is determining what is and is not paid for by child support. If a custodial parent receives employment income and child support, and places both in the same account, it becomes impossible to determine whether a purchase was funded by the parent’s salary or child support. Only at the extremes, where child support is the difference between buying and not buying something, can an argument be raised.
A custodial parent has the same obligation while receiving child support as not. Specifically, a custodial parent must promote a child’s best interests and make sure the child’s needs are met. If those obligations are met, it’s hard to argue that child support was misused.
It is much easier to track and monitor expense sharing arrangements. In many instances, a parent that incurs an expense for a child must provide the other parent proof of payment within a certain time frame (14-30 days usually) in order to receive reimbursement. The reimbursing parent is typically notified of the expense beforehand (and often consulted) and will then be permitted to review the invoice and payment prior to reimbursement. This provides the reimbursing parent with clarity as to what he or she is paying for.
What Should I Do Next?
If you have child support issues, you should contact an attorney. Even if you just need some advice, it’s best to not guess. As always, we’re happy to help.