Child Support Basics

Child Support 101: Child Support Basics

Dad and Baby

Updated August 2012

Child Support 101 is a compilation of online documents that explain the child support process and services. It is broken in to four areas: child support basics, administration, enforcement and family centered services.1 Each of those areas is broken into a variety of online documents that detail the process and state involvement in those processes. You may view the full contents of this project by visiting the comprehensive table of contents.

What is child support?

Child support is the financial support paid by parents to support a child or children of whom they do not have full custody. Child support can be entered into voluntarily, by court order or by an administrative agency (the process depends on the state or tribe). The noncustodial parent or obligor—the parent who does not have primary care, custody, or control of the child or children—often has an obligation to the custodial parent or obligee—the parent who has primary care, custody and control of the child or children.

Percent of child supportWho gets child support?

A noncustodial parent or obligor pays child support to a custodial parent or obligee for the care and support of children of a relationship that has been terminated or in cases of out-of-wedlock birth.

In some cases where someone other than the parent has custody, for example a child under state custody in foster care or living with grandparents, the state or grandparent become the obligee and receives child support payments on behalf of the child.

There is limited data on the reliability of child support payments, however, according to a recent US Census Bureau report, child support payments are inconsistent.2 Of the 5.9 million custodial parents due support in 2009, 41 percent received full payment, nearly 30 percent received partial payment while another 30 percent received no payment at all during the year. This is a decrease from previous years when over 46 percent received full payment and only 23 percent received no support. By changing the focus of the child support enforcement system to include family centered options, child support payment reliability is expected to increase.

Why child support?

Child support serves several important goals.

  • It reduces poverty and financial insecurity among children and custodial parents. 
  • It reduces public spending on welfare by preventing single-parent families from entering the welfare system and helping them leave the system more quickly.
  • Child support collection also positively affects family relationships and increases the involvement of noncustodial parents in children’s lives.

Child support receipt has been shown to reduce the child poverty rate and improve child well-being. In 2008, 625,000 children would have been poor had they not received child support payments. Studies also show that receipt of child support has a positive effect on academic achievement and improves young children’s cognitive development.

State investment in child support reduces other public spending. Child support collections lower the costs associated with welfare, food stamps and Medicaid. This is especially true in states where child support collection rates are highest. Receiving regular, reasonable child support awards can make the difference for families between reliance on the state and self-sufficiency.

Child support also affects families and marriage. Payment of child support can foster better relationships between children and parents and act as a disincentive for divorce.

Payment of child support also leads to increased involvement and influence of noncustodial fathers. Fathers who pay child support are more likely to visit their child, to see their child more frequently, and to affect how their child is raised, regardless of how much support they pay.3



  1. The family-centered services component is not available yet.
  2. Timothy S. Grall, Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2009 (Washington, D.C: United States Census Bureau, December 2010), 8-9.
  3. See for example, Jose Y. Diaz and Richard Chase, Return on Investment to the FATHER Project (St. Paul, MN: Wilder Research, November 2010).

*PLEASE NOTE: The National Conference of State Legislatures is an organization serving state legislators and their staff. We cannot offer legal advice or assistance with individual cases, but we do try to answer questions on general topics.

About This NCSL Project

NCSL staff in D.C. and Denver can provide comprehensive, thorough, and timely information on critical child support policy issues. We provide services to legislators and staff working to improve state policies affecting children and their families. NCSL's online clearinghouse for state legislators includes resources on child support policy, financing, laws, research and promising practices. Technical assistance visits to states are available to any state legislature that would like training or assistance related to this topic.  

The Denver-based child support project staff focuses on state policy, tracking legislation and providing research and policy analysis, consultation, and technical assistance specifically geared to the legislative audience. Denver staff can be reached at (303) 364-7700 or

NCSL staff in Washington, D.C. track and analyze federal legislation and policy and represent state legislatures on child support issues before Congress and the Administration. In D.C., Joy Johnson Wilson at 202-624-8689 or by e-mail at and Rachel Morgan at (202) 624-3569 or by e-mail at

The child support project and D.C. human services staff receive guidance and support from NCSL's NCSL's Standing Committee on Health & Human Services.

For more information regarding NCSL's child support work, please visit our Child Support Homepage.


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