The decision to start, raise and provide for a family doesn’t end just because the marriage did. Child support helps your children and family make the transition to a life after divorce.

By Diana Shepherd, CDFA ™

Regardless of whether or not you were ever legally married, all parents have an obligation to support their children. The decision to start, raise and provide for a family doesn’t end just because the marriage did. When you separate, child support spells out how financial costs associated with raising your children will be managed and shared during life after divorce.

In situations where the marriage (or marriage-like relationship) has broken down, the non-custodial parent is usually ordered to pay child support to the custodial parent; the custodial parent is expected to use these funds to pay for the child’s expenses. In most jurisdictions, “custodial” means that the children reside with this parent more than 60% of the time; ask your lawyer about the definition of sole physical custody in your area. In this situation, “custodial parent” means the one that the children live with most or all of the time; the “non-custodial” parent would have visitation or access rights, which might or might not include a certain number of overnight stays per week or month.

The amount of child support is based on a number of different factors, including the annual income of each parent, the total number of children in the family, and the custody arrangements for the children.

If there is one custodial parent, then the state or provincial Child Support Guidelines set out the base level of child support payable for one or more children. The Guidelines are intended to cover necessities: food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, public education, etc.

You and the other parent can agree to pay for special expenses that go above and beyond what the child support guideline amounts will cover. These additional expenses generally need to considered both necessary and reasonable by both parents: necessary because they are in a child’s best interests, and reasonable in relation to both parents’ incomes.

Child support is generally payable until the children finish school or are emancipated (reach the age of majority, left home, gotten married, or dropped out of school). If the children are going to attend college, child support will generally continue until they obtain their degree; in some cases, courts have ordered child support to continue through a second (Masters level) degree. Make sure your divorce agreement specifies when child support will end (child’s age and/or of level of education).

In the case of a special-needs child who will be dependent and living with a parent for the rest of his/her life, child support may be permanent.

You and the other parent can choose to opt-out of the Guidelines set up your own child support agreement as long as it is considered fair. If you choose to go this route, put your agreement in writing and sign it. This reduces the risk of a misunderstanding and it is easier to enforce a signed child support agreement. If you and the other parent wish to create your own agreement for child support, you should consider how much support a judge would likely order to be paid in your situation and use that number as a starting point for your negotiations.

Before finalizing an agreement – especially if it diverges from the Guideline amounts – you should talk to a lawyer. Your lawyer can help you understand your legal rights and obligations, which guidelines apply to you, how to use those guidelines to calculate a child support amount, and provide the right documents if you go to court. You should also obtain advice from a financial professional – particularly about your ability to pay child support above and beyond the Guideline amounts.

Diana Shepherd, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst® and Editorial Director of Divorce Magazine, has been writing about divorce-related issues since 1995.