fter a divorce, many parents are surprised to find that some details of co-parenting still aren’t perfectly ironed out. Parenting plans and court orders can only go so far. They may overlook finer points and details that can have considerable impact on your decisions and your children’s day-to-day needs.
Even when attorneys or courts hammer out a functional roadmap for post-divorce finances, parents still may encounter surprises. This is especially true when it comes to finances. One big question likely to crop up during or after your divorce proceedings is: “Do you have to pay extracurricular expenses on top of child support?”
Almost all kids participate in some sort of club, team, or other nonacademic activity parents need to pay for. It’s such a common situation it’s natural to assume divorce agreements would include provisions on how these activities are funded. You’d think there would be a solid “yes” or “no” answer to this common, simple question. However, because family law varies from state to state, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.
Despite the varying state laws, it’s possible to get a general sense of how courts and former couples approach this question. In this article, we’ll try to answer this question by offering background on:
Please keep in mind the following disclaimer as you read:
Child support is often determined on a case-by-case basis. The guidelines we discuss in this article are generalized and should not be considered substitutes for legal advice from a family law attorney or other expert from your state.
It’s not a given that child support will be a factor every time parents divorce. When it is, the amount of child support a parent pays or receives can vary dramatically based on factors like:
Even though each state has its own family law statutes, many states use similar methods to determine support payments. Most states have adopted one of three common child support calculation models.
Individual child custody arrangements determine how much child support you exchange. These models probably can’t tell you exactly what your state’s family court system will consider fair for you and your co-parent. As you may already know, you’ll have to submit a lot of paperwork to help the court arrive at the right number.
After a mediator or judge decides on the amount that applies to your case, your child support could be set up in a few different ways:
Sometimes, child support comes out of a parent’s wages automatically (called an income withholding order). Other times, co-parents exchange money with no court involvement.
How child support is intended to be used is a much more nuanced topic.
In general, child support covers basic needs: food, shelter, and clothing. Some interpretations include child care expenses and school supplies or tuition. However, there can be differing opinions on what quality or type of daycare or schooling is truly necessary to meet the needs of the child.
Thus, the definition of “living expenses” can be a bit muddled.
This is why most divorce decrees or parenting plans will include a section stating how the parents should attempt to come to a mutual agreement about any additional expenses. These are generally things that fall outside the umbrella of child support.
For example, nearly every parent will have to pay medical expenses above and beyond health insurance for their kids. Some divorce decrees indicate that co-parents should split those additional expenses in half, and others might leave the responsibility of a co-pay or other medical cost to the parent who took the child to the doctor.
Of course, there could be a much higher burden if your child is uninsured. Health care is not assumed to be covered by child support in many instances because of the dramatic disparity in costs.
Not all possible expenses will be itemized in your divorce paperwork. It’s simply impossible to predict everything a minor child will need over the years!
There’s going to be some amount of ongoing communication, and maybe negotiation, necessary in most divorces that involve co-parenting.
Now that you understand what regular child support covers, you may still wonder: “If I pay for or receive child support, do I have to pay for or can I ask to be reimbursed for anything else?”
The short answer is yes, although we ask you to take that lightly and remember how nuanced this topic is.
Expenses not covered by child support usually include both the ones you can’t foresee (i.e., medical emergencies) and those that are predictable but not necessarily required, such as summer camps and music lessons.
Because of the wide variation in how each state handles child support calculations, extracurricular activities may or may not have been directly considered in your case.
If your children have been involved in a sport or other activity for years, you can ask your lawyer or mediator to bring it up. Otherwise, it probably won’t be discussed.
If you don’t have a specific agreement about who’s responsible for extracurricular expenses, you’ll come up against some big decisions throughout your single parenthood.
There’s no guarantee that the monthly child support amount you exchange is sufficient to cover everything your children want to be involved in. This is where things can get difficult.
We’ve come up with a three-column list you can create to help you prioritize your kids’ activities. You can create this list for each child separately or make one cumulative list.
Column 1: What you can personally provide for your children now.
Given your current finances, including any child support income or alimony, can you really afford that after-school karate program or ballet class? What you can manage on your own will make up the base category.
Column 2: What your kids will be able to get involved in if the other parent pays their portion of the new expense.
Think of this one as the middle ground. If you’re not only considering child support, but also a small extra amount that you and your co-parent have agreed upon, your kids might be able to learn to play a new instrument or start a second sport.
Column 3: What they’d be able to do if both you and their other parent can agree and pay for an additional amount together.
This is the “reach” column. It might include big one-time experiences, such as a summer abroad or private driving lessons for your high schooler.
If you’ve decided on what you’d like to get your child involved in, it’s time to approach your co-parent about what they can handle financially.
The conflict-free way to do this is to use an app like . It allows you to propose a new shared extracurricular expense without sending a single text or email.
If you’re still in the process of your divorce and you know there will be lots of activities to discuss throughout your years of co-parenting, you can even ask your attorney or mediator to suggest Onward as a communication tool to both parties.
Once you’re using the app, the question of what you’ll each contribute beyond child support will be so much easier. You’ll be able to use the list we suggested in the previous section to guide what you ask for from the other parent.
Even when you combine financial forces with your co-parent, the reality is that you may only be able to pay for certain extracurricular activities. It’s possible that one or both of you have experienced a significant change in your finances due to the divorce.
You, your ex and your kids will likely need to work out some compromises. Don’t expect everybody to be thrilled about that. But at least you’re not alone in the need for compromise. Remember, families with married parents need to make adjustments as well.
In the moment when you have to say “no” to something your kid wants to do, parents may feel like they’re letting their children down. But remember that the feeling doesn’t last forever. They might be temporarily upset, but they’ll understand as they get older.
Balancing your children’s need for enrichment with what you can reasonably expect to support can be a challenge. And that change can last until your child turns 18 or graduates from high school. But with a thorough understanding of your divorce and/or child support case, you’ll be able to navigate the ins and outs of financial support after divorce.
Once you understand that calculating child support and figuring out what it covers involves consideration of much more than just who has physical custody and for what amount of time, you’ll have a much better feel for what you need to think about to strike a fair arrangement.
Can’t determine if you have to pay or ask for reimbursement on extracurricular expenses on top of child support? Finding that answer is important. Not knowing could mean missing out on financial help if you’re the custodial parent, or neglecting a legal responsibility if you’re the non-custodial parent.
When you don’t abide by your joint custody arrangement, you risk consequences, including being held in contempt of court. So we recommend approaching your money choices carefully. Remember: these are important, complicated questions. There’s no shame in turning to professional guidance.
If at any time you run into major confusion or gridlock with your former spouse over the expenses that fall outside of child support obligations, we recommend seeking legal advice from a divorce attorney who knows the child support laws in your state.
Chelsea is a twice-divorced mom of two boys. She is happily single parenting and doing her best to balance two simultaneous co-parenting relationships. Despite the complications, Chelsea can see the beauty in her story and believes healing is possible for the whole family.