What is a child support order?

A child support order is a document from a court that states when, how often, and how much a parent is to pay for child support. A child support order is typically part of a divorce decree or paternity judgment. If providing for the support of more than one child, the child support order will generally contain step-down provisions as dependent children "age out," meaning that as each child turns eighteen years of age, the amount of child support gradually decreases.

A child support order is a civil judgment, and therefore can be treated almost like any other civil judgment. There are three notable differences though. The first difference is the character of the obligation. Civil judgments resulting from consumer debts can be discharged in bankruptcy. However, a child support order cannot be discharged or modified in bankruptcy because of its nature as a support obligation.

The second difference is who can enforce the obligation. If you obtain a civil judgment against someone, then you are generally the only party who can enforce that judgment. When dealing with child support, however, some states' family codes provide that a child can retroactively enforce back child-support obligations after they turn eighteen years of age. The statute of limitations for when they must file the retroactive support obligation suit varies by state.

The third difference between an ordinary civil judgment and a child support order is the fluidity of the child support order. If you are in a car wreck and the court awards you $10,000 in damages from the defendant, the final civil judgment will always be $10,000. The opposite is true for child support orders. How much a non-custodial parent is ordered to pay depends on their annual income. If your job situation was affected by the plunging economy, you can petition the court to change the amount of child support you are required to pay each month. The consequences for failing to pay a child support obligation can be severe, so modification of your child support order can help you avoid being hit with civil and criminal non-support lawsuits.