What Does Child Support Cover: A Guide for Separated Parents

What does child support cover? And what does it not cover? Learn some helpful tips and tools to keep track of these expenses.
Matthew Carter
August 19, 2021
Start managing shared expenses with your co-parent easily!

ne of the most common issues after a divorce is how much child support should be paid if at all and to whom. Like most issues in the area of family law, there is never a consistent, clear answer that applies to all cases. What each parent’s income is, whether one of you is the primary custodial parent, how many children you have, and other factors change the answer in each case.

Sometimes, after a difficult split, parents have difficulty communicating, and the court has to step in with an order directing the amount of child support to be paid. Other times, you may be able to reach an amicable agreed-upon number with your ex. However you arrive at the child support arrangement, you should be clear on one thing: This is the beginning of the financial journey, not the end.

For example, let’s say that your child comes home from school excited about an overnight trip her class is taking. It sounds like an amazing experience, but you will have to pay for one night of hotel expenses. You share this fact with your ex who informs you that this should come out of the child support you already received this month.

Can that really be correct, though? Your child support order from the court does not appear to take into account costs of field trips, nor did you even know that overnight field trips were a thing when the order was put in place. You feel that the field trip expenses are above and beyond what your ex pays you in child support, which means you should split that expense. Who’s right?

This article will take a look at the concept of basic child support as it’s used in modern American law. We’ll talk about:

  • How child support is calculated
  • What child support payments are supposed to cover, and what they aren’t
  • How to handle it when you have an unexpected expense

What the Law Says Child Support Is

What does child support cover: Child Support document beside a gavel

Because family law is different from state to state, exact child support obligations and what they cover will be slightly different depending on where you live and which court issued your child support order. That said, the basic definition is pretty much the same everywhere.

Child support is generally acknowledged as needing to cover a child’s living expenses, but in most cases it covers 53% of expenses. In general, that includes basic needs: food, shelter, and clothing. Other common related expenses are up for negotiation:

  • Health care and necessary medical expenses
  • School expenses and tuition
  • School supplies
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Daycare or after-school childcare
  • Transportation, particularly between parents who live long distance from each other

These are more-or-less predictable recurring expenses that might be included in your child support. If your children go to private school, you know when tuition is going to be due. You probably know what the payment is going to be, and to whom it will be made. The same goes for a mortgage, utility bills, or grocery bills that are necessary to support your child.

Once you have the recurring expenses in mind, your state court will follow a series of guidelines to determine what a fair monthly child support payment would be. Most of these guidelines are available on the internet, like this list of child support statutes by state.

Once the expenses are established, payments are adjusted to reflect a number of factors under those guidelines, like:

Once all these factors have been considered, the court will either approve an agreement between you and your ex (if you made one), or it will create its own order for you to follow. And then, things will probably work fine until an unexpected expense comes up.

But Does Child Support Cover This?

Nurse talking to her patient

Most of the time, when there’s a question about whether child support covers a particular expense, it’s because something unexpected has arisen. Once the cost comes up, your ex may insist that the cost is already covered by the child support payment they’ve made this month. You, on the other hand, might say that this expense is on top of that, and should be split.

Who’s right will vary from case to case. For example, if your child suffers from appendicitis and has to have emergency surgery, they will likely have uninsured medical expenses, like copays not covered by health insurance. In that case, even though the emergency medical care is not laid out in the support order, most states will require that the additional expenses be split.

And that brings us back to the question of the overnight field trip and the hotel stay. Does this qualify as something for which child support should be used? In the facts as we’ve laid them out here, the answer is probably not.

Given that the field trip is an optional activity and was not predictable at the time of the court order, it’s safe to say that it’s not reasonably covered by monthly child support payments. Nor would the field trip be the kind of unexpected expense that most state laws would require to be split between parents.

In the case of expenses like this, then, you and your ex will need to work together to ensure the best result for your child. It would probably also help if you didn’t have to go back to court to litigate this matter in front of a family court judge again.

Tips for Dealing With Unexpected Expenses

Of course, everybody would love to have a playbook for exactly how different financial situations can be handled. Sadly, life doesn’t work that way. The best we can do, then, is equip ourselves with the right tools to handle them. Below are some tips that may help you through these rough patches.

Don’t Wait to Discuss Problems

A lot of times the last thing any of us wants to do is have a detailed discussion with the ex about a touchy financial issue. But, particularly where you have unexpected and large expenses, delaying the discussion will be at your own peril. If you discuss the expense with your ex as soon as you have all the facts, things will be much easier.

Don’t ignore the last part of that sentence. Before you message your ex, make sure you know all the details: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Make sure you understand why this expense wasn’t previously accounted for and have some responses prepared for potential pushback from your ex.

If you’re looking for a tool to help streamline this communication, the Onward App can organize all of your expenses in one place, validated by receipts, and streamline the review and approval of co-parenting expenses. Yes, this means no more spreadsheets or messy text message threads!

Keep Great Records

Some days, it seems difficult to clean the house or pull dinner together. In that context, the idea of keeping fastidious, accurate records of your kid’s expenses can be a daunting task. And that’s even before you try to get reimbursement from your ex.

Fortunately, there are some powerful tools that you can use to help you in your efforts. Onward allows you and your ex to track all your expenses for your children and avoid the back and forth about expenses that fall outside of child support. You can then export this data and use it for your own records — maybe even kept alongside receipts.

Key to this discussion, the app also allows you to communicate about expenses as soon as they come up. Once you have uploaded them into the app, you can propose fair splits for those expenses. If your ex agrees, they can follow what the app says, skipping the difficult conversation completely.

Supporting Your Child

Money is never an easy issue. Talking about money and childcare expenses after a divorce can make this tough situation even tougher. Try to be patient and forgiving, not only with your ex and your kids, but with yourself. Nobody knows what to do all the time, and that’s okay. As long as you have your kid’s best interests at heart, you’ll be fine.

Just because you have the ability to hire a child support attorney and go to court doesn’t mean it’s the best way to handle these sensitive issues. Even if you have to do some negotiating with your ex, try to focus on being the best parent you can be for your children.

Start managing shared expenses with your co-parent easily!

Matthew Carter

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.