arenting after a divorce or separation is a new journey with a lot of new things to learn, for parents with and without custody. Many non-custodial parents have a child support order that requires regular payments to their ex, which can bring up a lot of questions.
Parents receiving child support need to know exactly how and when those payments will arrive in their bank account so they can use the funds for necessities like child care, medical support, school fees, and every other child-related item staring back at them from their credit card statement.
On the other hand, parents sending child support may be unsure if they’ve made a mistake in getting a child support account set up correctly, or if the direct deposit they’ve established works correctly, and they don’t want it to look like they’re breaking their promise to make timely payments.
Don’t worry. The world of child support isn’t all that stressful once you learn the ropes. We’ll address the concerns of both parents. Specifically, we’ll look at:
So, your child support case has resulted in a court order mandating that you or your co-parent has to pay child support. Now what?
Driven partly by technology and partly by family courts’ need to see the evidence in child support cases, it is more common now for payments to be made through a state disbursement unit (usually a department of child support services or family services).
That way, the court can look at the government records and know whether a parent is fulfilling their child support obligations. In the past, this involved writing a check to the child support agency. Today, electronic payments from a non-custodial parent’s bank account are increasingly more common. They are also much easier to track because, unlike paper checks, the electronic information can automatically be compiled and stored by the court or child support department.
Once the payment has been made to the department, the department records it. The payment is then sent on to the non-custodial parent. Processing times can vary depending on which banks are involved, but once the schedule has been set, the payment should arrive at the same time every month. (That’s assuming, of course, that the payment is made on time.)
Parents can then view payment records, usually on a government website. In New York, for example, both parents create accounts on the New York state website so that they can see their whole payment history and check on the status of a particular payment. And, should you need to go to court to enforce a support order, these records will help you prove your case.
There are other ways to make child support payments. Other types of child support arrangements can be arranged based on the technology available where you are, and your court’s and the parents’ level of comfort with it.
In some locales, paper checks cut by child support offices might be the norm. Or, if a judge is confident in the parties’ ability to cooperate, the court may allow the non-custodial parent to make payments directly by check, money order, PayPal, MoneyGram, or a similar method.
While some people may prefer the direct solution, the question of how to track child support payments gets harder. There are fewer ways to monitor these payments — you’re often reduced to waiting by the mailbox for a payment to arrive. If a check is coming from child support offices, you might have a toll-free number to call and check on payments, but you’re still limited by the lack of electronic information.
If there’s a dispute about the non-custodial parent not making payments, a low-tech arrangement such as a party-to-party direct payment can make it harder to prove what actually happened. That can make the process more stressful for everybody in your family.
Some family courts may also give custodial parents the option of skipping bank account deposits altogether and provide an electronic funds card. These cards, which generally function like normal debit cards, are reloaded on by the child services department as the non-custodial parent makes payments. You can simply check the balance on your card to determine whether a child support payment has been made.
While this may sound like the most convenient option, be aware that you will pay a premium for the convenience. These cards often use proprietary payment card networks, like Visa or MasterCard. You may be subject to a monthly or per-transaction fee for using them. (For example, one card used in Wisconsin imposes a $1.50 fee for using ATMs out of a certain network.)
Over time, those minor charges can add up. The fees take away from the money you actually get to use for your child, so you might choose to say no if this is brought up.
If a parent is not making payments, states have several options. If you’re a custodial parent and you can’t find your child’s payment, you should file a report with your local child support agency (court, department of family services, etc.) and open a child support enforcement case. A judge will look at the situation and determine whether back child support should be paid.
If non-custodial parents consistently fail to make child support payments, it’s more likely that a family court will garnish their wages. This typically means that money is taken directly from the non-custodial parent’s paycheck to pay for child support. In that extreme case, tracking child support payments isn’t difficult at all.
While you’re looking at your options for tracking child support payments, start tracking your other child-related expenses too. Child support doesn’t cover all of the expenses you’ll have for raising your children. Medical costs like co-pays usually aren’t included in support payments, nor is money spent for a child’s extracurricular activities. You’ll also have future expenses to consider, like college savings accounts.
Depending on your exact situation, you can ask for some or all of these to be shared with your co-parent. While some parents might be a master at storing receipts and remembering which expenses are to be shared, most of us rely on our phone to stay organized.
The best option for expense tracking across all facets of your children’s lives is the Onward App. It gives you and your ex a central place to list all outstanding and paid expenses, along with each parent’s share of those expenses. Using an app as a buffer will drastically cut down on those uncomfortable conversations with your ex about money.
And speaking of how to track child support payments, you can utilize the app to note the dates you received a payment, notify your co-parent that you just sent a payment, or send a reminder to your co-parent for what they owe you if you use the direct payment method — all without any nagging texts or confusing email chains.
Nobody likes stressing about finances or dealing with the legal system unnecessarily. You can’t always escape conflict, but if you’re informed on child support rules and you use the best expense-tracking tools, you’ll give yourself the best shot at avoiding it.
With an app that does most of the legwork for you, you can skip the tense discussions around money and get back to your life. Consider it a co-parenting win.
Matthew Carter has been a licensed attorney since 2004. He has successfully handled a variety of trials, appeals, and evidentiary hearings throughout state and federal courts. Matthew has done pro bono work in the Las Vegas community representing foster children and helping reunite families separated in the Las Vegas family court system.