Can You Lower Your Child Support Obligation?

This is a common question for family law attorneys, and the short answer is “yes…maybe.” As with many legal questions, whether you can raise or lower your child support amount depends on your unique circumstances. Child support recipients often feel that they need more child support in order to pay for expenses related to parenting responsibilities. On the flip side, child support payors might feel they are paying too much child support, in which case they wish to seek a downward modification of their obligation. This article discusses what North Carolina state law says happens in each of these scenarios.

First of all, it is important to know that any change to a court order related to child custody or child support is what we call a “modification.” Modifications require more than simply asking a Judge to look at the current circumstances and adjusting an order accordingly. First, the Judge must receive evidence and determine that there has been a substantial change in circumstances impacting the minor children. You might be asking yourself, what constitutes a substantial change when it comes to child support in my case?

A substantial change in child support cases can mean either of two things:

First, if three years have passed since the last child support order was entered, and a new child support calculation would render an amount that is at least 15% higher or lower than the previous amount, then this constitutes a substantial change in circumstances. This is the most common grounds for a modification of child support. If fewer than three years have passed, or the new amount would be 10% different, for example, then there would not be a substantial change, and therefore the Judge would not be able to modify your child support order. In other words, you’re stuck for now.

The second way to demonstrate a substantial change is when a Judge determines that a new child support amount would be much greater than 15% higher or lower than the previous amount. If this is true, then you don’t need to worry about three years passing since the previous order—the Judge can change your child support amount now. This is most common in cases where one spouse has lost his or her job and is no longer earning an income. After all, if the payor doesn’t have a job, then he or she is unlikely to be able to pay ongoing child support. Note that a child support modification based on a job loss is usually temporary, and a Judge will often wish to review the new child support amount within a few weeks or months with hopes that the payor will find a job during that time.

Keep in mind that the foregoing discussion relates to folks who have child support orders, which are kept in a court file with a Judge’s signature. However, many separated or divorced parents are subject to child support agreements rather than orders. If that applies to you, then it is likely that in order to modify your child support amount, you will not be subject to the same restrictions that apply to modifying court orders. This is an important point to discuss with your family law attorney.

Let’s say that you have a child support order, you wish to modify it (higher or lower), and you have the facts to show there has been a substantial change. In that case, the Judge at your child support hearing can simply receive evidence related to each party’s income, along with a few other pieces of information, and he or she will calculate your new child support amount.

What pieces of information does a Judge need to calculate child support? Which child support worksheet (aka calculator) applies to my case? These topics will be discussed in detail in future posts on this blog.

As always, this article is not legal advice, and it is important that you seek the advice of an experienced family law attorney regarding your unique facts and circumstances before making any major decisions that might impact you or your family.