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Child Support in North Carolina

One of the more frustrating aspects of separating from your child’s other parent is determining the appropriate amount of Child Support—who pays and how much? Though the North Carolina Statutes governing Child Support and the North Carolina Child Support Calculation Worksheets can be very helpful as a starting point for your Child Support matter, this is often a complex process that is most easily navigated with the help of a North Carolina family law attorney.

The Purpose of Child Support

Child Support is often a sticky topic for a newly separated couple and can add to increased hostility or resentment when one parent chooses to file for Child Support. However, most times the person who is asking for Child Support is not doing so maliciously, but to ensure the best possible quality of life for their children. The purpose of Child Support in North Carolina is to ensure that children have a comparable standard of living with each parent, and to ensure that their basic needs are met in both households. In order to make the Child Support process as fair as possible, North Carolina has created guidelines that can assist most families in calculating an appropriate amount of support for their children.

Calculating Child Support

The first step in any Child Support case is understanding how Child Support is calculated. Generally speaking, the court will determine the monthly gross (pre-tax) income for each parent, as well as their share of the parenting time of the minor children in question. The court will also consider contributions that the parents are making outside of their Child Support obligation, such as paying to carry the minor children on their health insurance or extraordinary expenses that are paid for the minor children.

For parents who fall within the North Carolina Child Support Guidelines, meaning that their combined gross income does not exceed $40,000 per month ($480,000 per year), the court will typically use the Child Support Worksheets that fit that family’s circumstances to determine the correct Child Support amount. The court will use the Worksheets described below as a guide but may decide to deviate from the worksheet amount if they are asked to do so, and there is evidence to support that deviation.

The “magic number” for determining the correct Child Support Worksheet to use is 123 overnights of parenting time per year, per child. In families in which one parent is the primary caretaker of the minor children, and the other parent has less than 123 annual overnights with each minor child, the court will use North Carolina Child Worksheet A. In families in which both parents have at least 123 annual overnights with each minor child, the court will use North Carolina Child Support Worksheet B. In cases that have a hybrid custody arrangement, that is often referred to colloquially as a “Parent Trap” arrangement in which each parent has primary custody of at least one child, the court will use North Carolina Child Support Worksheet C.

You do not need to have a formal custody order in place to file for Child Support. If you do not have an order in place, the court will consider testimony regarding your current custodial arrangement in making their determination of a Child Support obligation.

Obtaining a Child Support Order

So, once the amount is calculated, how does one go about getting an award of Child Support?

The first option is to file a claim for Child Support through the Department of Social Services. For cases in which custody is not at issue, this is usually a straightforward process. Once your claim is filed, the Department of Social Services will obtain income and custody time sharing information from each party, run the appropriate Child Support worksheet and present that information to the Judge to obtain a Child Support Order.

The second option is to file a lawsuit for Child Support, or include a claim for Child Support in a broader domestic lawsuit filed in District Court of the county in which the minor children live. Each county has their own forms and local rules for how to report income, so this is a process best guided by an attorney who is familiar with that process. From there, either you and the other parent can reach an agreement and enter into a Consent Order, which will be signed by a judge, or you will proceed to a hearing. At the hearing, the judge will determine the respective incomes from both parties and determine which Child Support worksheet, if any, is appropriate to determine the Child Support obligation, and enter an Order describing the amount, frequency, and method of Child Support payments.

Enforcing a Child Support Order

Once a Child Support Order is entered, meaning it is signed by a judge and filed with the clerk of courts, it is enforceable by the contempt powers of the court. In the event that the party who is obligated to pay Child Support fails to make their payments, the party owed support can sue for contempt of court. Successfully suing for contempt can be difficult because the person suing must ensure that they prove not only that the other party failed to pay, but that they did so willfully and without just cause. Contempt actions are also one of the few instances in which the accused is entitled to an attorney in family court and, if certain income requirements are met, an attorney can be appointed to assist the person accused of failure to pay.

Unpaid Child Support

Oftentimes, before a Child Support order is entered, the party that will ultimately be ordered to pay is either not contributing at all, or contributing less than they should be under the Child Support Guidelines. In these instances, an individual filing a new action for Child Support can request “retroactive” Child Support back to the date that they filed to request Child Support or, in some cases, back to their date of separation. When an order for Child Support is entered, this past-due amount may be referred to as arrears.

The term “arrears” refers to when the parent who is ordered by the court to pay Child Support fails to do so, in whole or in part. Payment of arrears can be made as an addition to a regular Child Support obligation or paid in lump sums over time. Arrears are rarely forgiven by the court, and the person obligated to pay will need to continue to make payments towards those arrears until paid in full, even if their general Child Support obligation has terminated because a child has aged out.

Duration of Child Support

Generally, a Child Support obligation will last until the minor child turns 18 or graduates high school, whichever occurs later. However, if the person owing Child Support still owes arrears, meaning they have failed to pay the full amount of Child Support owed, they will continue to be required to make payments on those arrears until they are paid in full. Courts in North Carolina will generally not require either parent to participate in paying for college or living expenses for a child who has reached the age of 18 and/or graduated high school unless it is by agreement of the parties.

Modification of a Child Support Order

In many cases, the income of one or both parties, or their custodial arrangement, may change. These are circumstances that may justify a modification, or reevaluation of Child Support. If you believe there has been a significant change in the other party’s income, or if your income has changed dramatically, it is important to bring that change to the court’s attention as soon as possible.

Every family law case is unique. While the information in this post is a good starting point for those learning about the process, nuances in your case and specific questions are best addressed in a consultation with an experienced family law attorney. If you are ready to move forward with an action for Child Support, or if a Child Support action has been filed against you, our team is here to help! Call our office at 704-405-2580 to schedule your comprehensive Child Support consultation today.

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