Changing Support Orders

Adjustments Upward and Downward

Child support orders can be reviewed and adjusted upward or downward at the request of a party or, if the receiving parent is also obtaining temporary assistance to needy families, the state can make the request.

Most state child support agencies offer this service periodically–for example only every 3 years–unless there is a hardship reason for an exception. Most state child support agencies and some state laws only allow an adjustment of the order if it will result in an increase or decrease of a certain magnitude ( for example, at least 10%) in order to protect courts and agencies from being overwhelmed with requests.

In addition, the change in circumstance underlying the request needs to be permanent as opposed to temporary and not a result of one party intentionally reducing their income.

When Can You Request a Change and For How Much? A Two-Tier System

Either parent may request a child support order to be recalculated during or after divorce proceeding or in response to a determination by a CSE office. The question is when and how much?  If the parents are NOT enrolled in state child support enforcement services, there are usually no restrictions on how often a petition may be filed with the court for a modification.  If however, the custodial parent is enrolled (usually due to receipt of state-funded temporary financial assistance), the state may establish a minimum waiting period between the initial determination and subsequent modifications to the child support order.

Keep in Mind a General Threshold of Ten Percent

However, just because time restrictions allow or a petition is filed is no assurance that a modification will be approved, or that it will be adjusted in the manner as may be requested.  An adjustment to the order will more likely be approved if the recalculation results in a net change of at least ten percent (10%) in the net child support payment. 

If the occurrence of a substantial or material change in circumstances are sufficient to warrant the modification of a support obligation pursuant to the state Child Support Guideline, the Court may modify any provision of an agreement or settlement relating to child support, without regard to whether the agreement or settlement is entered as a consent order or is incorporated or merged in a court order. 

In Other Words, Changes Can Be Made to Both Court Orders and Voluntary Accords

In other words, any order requiring payment of an amount of child support, regardless of whether the amount of the child support was the subject of a court order or a voluntary agreement between the parents, may be modified upon a showing that there has been a substantial and material change in the needs of the child or the ability of the responsible person to pay.

The law in some states allows a party to request a change because of the birth of additional children. Other states do not allow this circumstance to constitute a legal reason to change an order. See your state's guidelines for details. 

Rules for Parents Living in Different States

There are rules providing for where any review and adjustment must take place when the parents live in different states. To make a complicated subject seem simple let's just say that if the parties are in two different states, generally the change will be made in the state of the non-requesting party. The purpose of this federal interstate law is to prevent what is known as "forum shopping" that is, a party moving to a state with more favorable child support laws in regard to their own circumstance in order to gain an advantage.

Legal Reasons for Changes in Circumstance

The legal reasons necessary to establish a change in circumstance vary by state law and by state court decisions. Some of the more common reasons include: a party has a much higher or lower paying job, a child is growing older and has increased expenses or it has been many years since the original order and cost of living increases have surpassed the original order. 

Changes to a child support order through the local Child Support Enforcement office will follow an administrative set of procedures specific to that office, which are typically available by visiting the local office or the state/county website.

Other changes in circumstances are centered around emancipation, that is if a child marries, joins the military, changes parental residence, or otherwise becomes self supporting before the usual legal age of majority.  Refer to our Emancipation Table. Most state courts provide a mechanism for child support relief/reduction when these types of changes occur.

NOTE: Often times children move back and forth at different ages between the parents. Neither the court not the state child support agency is aware of these moves unless notified. Orders for support do not automatically end but accrue each month until the child reaches the age of majority or the age specified in the order or the court enters a new order.

When a court is asked to review and adjust an order it cannot change the order for the period of time before filing by federal law. This is called a retroactive modification and is forbidden. For example, if you have three children you are paying support for and two of them return to live with you and the other parent consents to that, the order continues to accrue until the court receives a petition for modification. Do not think that the order is self correcting. If you wait, you may owe support for the time before you sought a change.