Child Support in North Carolina: It causes confusion, agitation and pressure on parents responsible for paying or in need of child support. This Newsletter is designed to answer some questions about the administration of child support in North Carolina. But the information contained herein is for general and education purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice. PLEASE REMEMBER: if you need legal advice about your specific situation, I encourage you to consult a qualified legal professional in your area.
Q: What is Child Support?
A: Child support is a monetary payment usually made by a noncustodial parent to the custodial parent to offset the reasonable needs and expenses of the parties’ minor children. Child Support may be established by a voluntary support agreement, or a civil court action.
Q: Who is responsible for paying Child Support?
A: In most cases, both parents (father and mother) are liable for financially supporting their minor children. In practice, though, the noncustodial parent usually pays child support to the custodial parent. Consequences for willfully failing to pay court-ordered child support may include: jail time, interception of tax refund, suspension of one’s driving privileges, or denial/revocation of one’s passport.
Q: How is Child Support Calculated?
A: Child support is determined by using the NC Child Support Guidelines. The guidelines calculate child support based, in part, on the parents’ gross monthly income, their work relatedchildcare costs and the healthcare insurance costs for the minor children at issue in the litigation.
On the other hand, a court may deviate from the child support guidelines if both parents’ gross monthly income exceeds $25,000 dollars. A court may also deviate from the support guidelines if an award based upon said guidelines: i) would not meet or exceed the children’s reasonable needs and expenses; or ii) would otherwise be unjust or inappropriate under the circumstances.
Q: How is A Parent’s “Income” Determined?
A: Child support is calculated by using the “gross income” of the parents. “Gross Income” is defined, in part, as any actual income received from “any source, including income from employment or self-employment (salaries, wages, commissions, bonuses, dividends, severance pay, etc.), ownership or operation of a business, partnership, or corporation, rental of property, retirement or pensions, [post-separation support,] alimony or prizes, unemployment insurance benefits, disability pay and insurance benefits, gifts, etc.” Also included in a parent’s “gross income” are any child support payments received by the parent for children other than those minors for whom child support is being sought. Conversely, a parent from whom child support is being sought may have his/her “gross income” reduced by the child support amount that he/she is obligated to pay for any other children not included in the support action. Finally, certain public assistance benefits received by a parent involved in the child support action are excluded when determining such parent’s “gross income.”
Q: How is a Child Support Order Enforced?
A: Child support orders are enforced through the contempt powers of the court. If it is determined that the parent ordered to pay child support willfully fails to make such payments, he/she may be held in either criminal and/or civil contempt. Criminal contempt exposes the offending parent to a specific jail term, usually 30 days; but civil contempt exposes such parent to a potentially longer jail term. A parent held in civil contempt for willfully violating a child support order may be held in jail until he/she purges the contempt by paying the unpaid child support as determined by the court. A parent jailed, though, under such circumstances—e.g. civil contempt—may not be held for more than 90 days without a review hearing.
But a parent subjected to criminal or civil contempt may adequately defend such charge by showing, among other things, that he/she had an inability to comply with the court order or that the court order was invalid during the time period it is alleged that he/she willfully failed to comply with it.
Q: Can I Modify Court Ordered Child Support/When does Child Support Terminate?
A: Parents seeking to modify child support have the burden of proving since the entry of the existing child support order that there has been a substantial change in circumstances that warrants a modification. Usually a “substantial change in circumstances” can be shown where i) there is at least a fifteen (15) percent change in either parent’s income; or ii) that there is at least a fifteen (15) percent difference between the existing child support award and the award based upon the parents’ current gross monthly income.
Moreover, a child support obligation usually ceases once the child either i) graduates high school; ii) has stopped attending high school; or iii) has reached the age of 18 years old, whichever is the later date. But the parent paying child support must petition the court to terminate the existing child support obligation. And he/she continues to be responsible for any child support arrearage that accrued up until the time the child support obligation is terminated.
Q: Can I Recover Attorney’s Fees?
A: Parents seeking child support may recover reasonable attorney fees that were incurred as a result of bringing the child support action. An award of reasonable attorney fees is based upon whether the parent seeking attorney fees: 1) is an interested party to the litigation and is acting in good faith; 2) that he/she has insufficient means to pay the cost of bringing the child support action; and 3) the parent against whom the action is brought refused to pay child support. But if child support and custody claims are coupled together, the complaining parent does not need to show that the other parent refused to pay child support in order to recover reasonable attorney fees.