Child Support Modifications – How and When to Apply

A common concern among people in a post-divorce setting is how and when an existing child support order can be modified. The reality is that specific guidelines are utilized to determine how and when a modification to child support will be approved or permitted by a court. Laws pertaining to child support, and all other divorce and post-divorce related matters, are established in each individual state. Although there are some minor differences in the laws addressing child support modification from one jurisdiction to another, the general guidelines are similar across the United States.

Modifying Child Support by Agreement of the Parties

One of the ways in which an existing child support order potentially can be modified is by agreement of the parents. The parties to an existing order of child support agree between themselves to raise, lower or otherwise adjust an element of that outstanding obligation.

Once the parties reach an agreement between themselves, they actually still must obtain approval of that accommodation from the judge assigned to the case. More often than not, a presiding judge does approve the agreement made by the parties regarding a child support modification, provided the alteration complies with the law and is deemed to be in the best interests of the child.

Modifying Child Support by Filing a Motion with the Court

Agreements are not always easy to come by in post-divorce matters. Thus, oftentimes a motion needs to be filed with the court by the parent who seeks a modification of a child support order.

Although a person seeking to modify a child support order is best served seeking the professional assistance of a qualified attorney, most courts now provide standard forms that an individual can use to seek this type of relief. Once the motion is completed, the document (technically called a pleading) is filed with the clerk of the court. A hearing typically is scheduled to take evidence and hear arguments regarding the requested child support modification.

Following the hearing, the judge issues an order (oftentimes at the conclusion of the hearing itself) either granting or denying the requested child support modification. In taking action on a motion (or in approving an agreement to modify made between the parties) the court applies certain standards.

Material Change of Circumstances

The first consideration applied by the court in addressing a motion to modify child support is that of a material change of circumstances. In other words, in order for a child support adjustment to be made, the court must find that something compelling has occurred that warrants the change.

For example, if the parent with the support obligation loses his or her job through no fault of his or her own, the court may deem that to be a material change in circumstances that warrants a modification. On the other hand, if the court determines that the job loss (or the taking of a lower paying position) is designed in part to avoid a child support commitment, the judge will not alter the order.

A pay increase or decrease may be a reason to alter a child support order. However, in order for this to occur, most states have laws that require the change to be of a certain percentage in order to trigger a modification. (For example, a 5 percent increase or decrease may be sufficient in some jurisdictions to permit modification.)

Passage of a Specified Period of Time

State laws typically require a minimum period of time to pass after a child support order is put in place before a modification is sought. For example, the law may require the passing of a year before an order is subject to modification.

Compliance with Child Support Guidelines

Even if the parties reach an agreement regarding a child support modification, the amount to be paid usually must comply with the child support guidelines. In other words, the parents typically cannot agree to eliminate a child support obligation because that would not be consistent with the child support guidelines. In some very limited instances, a court will permit a deviation from the guidelines upon a demonstration of good cause.