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.
All states and territories operate a child support enforcement program, usually in the human services or resources department, department of revenue, or the attorneys general office. These entities frequently work with the help of prosecuting attorneys, other law enforcement agencies, and the juvenile or family and domestic relations courts. Native American tribes can also operate culturally appropriate child support programs with federal funding.
Federal Role in Child Support Enforcement
The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) oversees child support enforcement programs administered in each state. The federal child support program involves 54 states and territories and over 50 tribes. Each entity has its own unique laws and procedures. The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) assists states and tribes in performing collection and enforcement services. All of these entities work closely with the private sector including financial institutions, employers and insurance companies.
The federal program has a number of responsibilities including recommending and implementing policies for state and tribal child support enforcement programs, developing procedures to review state and tribal plans, conducting audits of child support programs, providing training and technical assistance to states and tribes, and assisting states and tribes in establishing reporting procedures and records.
Each state child support enforcement agency operates under a state plan approved by the OCSE. Each state plan is based on the program standards and policy set by the federal government. It sets the structure for state child support enforcement agencies and their local counterparts to work with families to obtain support. States are required to track financial and statistical data on their programs.
States and the federal government share the costs of these programs; however, the federal government provides the majority of child support enforcement funding. Congress reimburses states for two-thirds of their administrative costs. States receive a federal match on their child support enforcement expenditures. States can also receive additional federal incentive payments for meeting performance measures related to:
- Paternity establishment.
- Number of cases with orders.
- Collection of orders and arrears.
- Cost effectiveness.
States must reinvest the federal match and incentive payments into the child support programs. There are also financial penalties for not meeting the performance targets.
State Program Structure
Child support program structures vary widely from state to state. Some states have centralized programs with local service offices. Other states have county-operated programs, in which the counties are nearly independent of each other in their procedures, forms and requirements.
At a minimum, services offered in all child support programs include:
- Locating noncustodial parents.
- Establishing paternity.
- Establishing and modifying support orders (including medical support).
- Collecting support payments and enforcing child support orders.
- Referring noncustodial parents to employment services.
Some child support payments are handled through courts or private attorneys. These arrangements are separate from state child support programs, although some state programs process all child support payments in the state. Child support programs typically do not provide services related to child custody, visitation, or property distribution. Some do collect alimony when it is included as part of the child support order and others may facilitate limited access and visitation programs. Each state receives money from the OCSE to develop programs to ensure that children have access to both of their parents.
The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (more commonly known as the 1996 federal welfare reform act or PRWORA) required states to expand the authority of their state agencies to do many of the child support establishment and enforcement tasks previously reserved to the courts. Now, in many states, administrative processes are used more than judicial for child support functions. For example, some state agencies have broad powers to establish child support orders (with judicial review and approval), use enforcement tools such as liens and license suspensions, and review child support orders every few years.
For a list of state child support oversight entities, visit our 50 State Table of State Child Support Oversight Entities. For a list of state processes, visit our 50 State Table of Child Support Process.
Who Gets Child Support Services From the State?
Any parent or person with custody of a child who needs help to establish a child support or medical support order or to collect support payments can apply for services. Individuals receiving public assistance from the state are required to participate in the state child support program. A father can apply for services to establish paternity. Noncustodial fathers can request to make payments through the child support enforcement program – this ensures a record of payments made. Noncustodial parents can also request that their child support order be modified, if, for example, they lose their job.
Types of Child Support Cases
State IV-D Cases: IV-D cases are cases in which a state provides child support services through the state or tribal IV-D program to a custodial parent. The program is funded under Title IV-D of the Social Security Act. There are three subtypes of state IV-D cases:
- Public or Current Assistance Cases: Parents who receive public assistance under the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are required to assign their rights to child support payments to the state. The state automatically refers these cases to the OCSE in order to attempt to collect child support directly from the noncustodial parent.
- Non-Public Assistance Cases: Non- public assistance cases are those in which the family is not currently (never assistance) or is no longer receiving cash assistance (former assistance) or Medicaid but the state child support agency is providing collection services
- Foster Care and Adoption Assistance (IV-E Cases): Cases where the state currently provides benefits or services for foster care maintenance to a child that meets IV-E eligibility guidelines.In these cases, someone other than a parent is caring for a child or children—this could include a relative caregiver or the foster care system. These cases are also automatically referred to the child support agency in order to attempt to recoup costs from the noncustodial parent(s).
Private or Non IV-D Cases: Non IV-D cases are cases where child support is established and maintained privately, most often following a divorce where support orders are determined as part of the divorce proceedings. Any family is eligible for support enforcement services from the state. Some private cases become state IV-D cases when they are referred to the OCSE to help collect outstanding, unpaid child support.
How Much Do Child Support Enforcement Programs Charge for Services?
TANF, Medicaid, foster care and other cash assistance recipients do not have to pay for child support services. For others, states are permitted under federal law to charge up to a $25 fee and many states do. Agencies may also charge fees for legal work done by agency attorneys or location costs to non-public assistance clients.
The federal Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 requires each state's office of child support enforcement to collect a $25 annual fee from families who have never received Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and have received at least $500 in child support during the current fiscal year. States have a number of options available to collect the mandatory fee. They may pay the fee themselves rather than pass it on to individual clients. States can charge the non-custodial parent or the custodial parent. States can also withhold the fee from child support being paid to the custodial parent. Most states began collecting the $25 child support services fee on October 1, 2007.
What Are the Special Requirements for TANF and Medicaid Recipients?
Under federal law, all TANF clients are required to cooperate with state authorities in child support establishment and enforcement efforts. The failure of TANF clients to cooperate will result in a loss of TANF eligibility. Some limited exceptions exist for domestic violence situations. Also under federal law, all TANF clients are required to assign their rights to their child support payments to the state in compensation for eligibility to receive TANF. Delinquent obligors whose children are TANF recipients may be required to agree to a payment plan or to participate in work activities.
Providing for children’s health care is a basic responsibility of the child support program. By connecting children to the right coverage for them—coverage through either of their parents’ employers, Medicaid, CHIP, Exchanges, or other options—the child support program can assure that children will have continuous, stable access to health care as they grow up, and that the resources of both parents are being used most effectively for the child. The state child support agency and the state Medicaid agency may work out referrals between the two programs to assure that children in the Medicaid program have access to child support services and that children in the child support program have access to health care coverage options. Custodial parents who receive Medicaid are also required to cooperate with the state child support agency. Medicaid recipients must assign their rights to medical child support to the state.
GO TO NEXT SECTION: CHILD SUPPORT 101: WEBINAR
- The family-centered services component is in development.
For more information or to request technical assistance on state or federal child support policies and programs, please send a message to Children & Families staff. As a membership organization serving state legislators and legislative staff, we do not respond to inquiries or provide legal advice related to individual child support or family law cases.
For more information regarding NCSL's child support work, please visit our Child Support Homepage.