Can a court require a parent to pay child support?

Yes, a court can require the noncustodial parent (the parent without primary or legal custody) to provide reasonable child support—including medical expenses. Before child support can be imposed on a person, there must be an establishment of parenthood. In

LegalSpeak: Troxel v. Granville (2000)

The Washington nonparental visitation statute is breathtakingly broad. According to the statute's text, "[a]ny person may petition the court for visitation rights at any time," and the court may grant such visitation rights whenever "visitation may serve the best interest of the child." §26.10.160(3) (emphases added). That language effectively permits any third party seeking visitation to subject any decision by a parent concerning visitation of the parent's children to state-court review. Once the visitation petition has been filed in court and the matter is placed before a judge, a parent's decision that visitation would not be in the child's best interest is accorded no deference. Section 26.10.160(3) contains no requirement that a court accord the parent's decision any presumption of validity or any weight whatsoever. Instead, the Washington statute places the best-interest determination solely in the hands of the judge. Should the judge disagree with the parent's estimation of the child's best interests, the judge's view necessarily prevails. Thus, in practical effect, in the State of Washington a court can disregard and overturn any decision by a fit custodial parent concerning visitation whenever a third party affected by the decision files a visitation petition, based solely on the judge's determination of the child's best interests.

most instances, a mother seeks to establish paternity of the alleged father of her child. Once paternity is established—usually by testing—then child support can be imposed upon the so-called father.

How does a court determine the amount of child support?

States have child support guidelines that provide for a requisite degree of support that depends upon the income of the parent who must pay child support and the number of children. Under the Maryland child support guidelines, if a noncustodial parent (who has been ordered to pay child support) makes $5,000 a month and has one child, he or she must pay $670 a month in child support.

Many states' child support guidelines are accessible on the Internet. For example, Tennessee's rules are available at 1240-02A240-02-04.20080815.pdf. To learn more about child support guidelines, see the website

What happens if a person refuses to pay child support?

If a person continues to refuse to pay child support, he or she can be found guilty of criminal contempt and placed in jail. Some states refer to the crime as "criminal nonsupport." The penalties can be serious. Alaska law provides that a person can be sentenced to a Class A felony for criminal nonsupport. Tennessee law provides that a person can be jailed in a county workhouse for up to six months for failure to comply with support obligations.

Can courts modify child support obligations?

Yes, a party can petition the court for a change in child support obligations provided that they can show a material change in circumstances. For example, if a custodial parent learns that the other parent who provides child support recently obtained a new job that pays much more money, the custodial parent can petition for an increase in child support. Likewise, if a person ordered to pay child support makes less money and the court determines such a loss in income is not his or her fault, the court might order a reduction in child support.

Court-ordered child support is not optional, and parents who do not pay can find themselves in jail (iStock).

Court-ordered child support is not optional, and parents who do not pay can find themselves in jail (iStock).

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