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Spousal and Child Support
When a couple gets divorced, one spouse typically gets primary custody of any children of the marriage. This is usually, but not always, the mother. When one parent gets sole custody of a child of the marriage, the other parent typically has to provide for the care of the child in the form of monthly payments. Child support is viewed as a right of the child, rather than a right of the custodial parent, and in some states, when a child reaches the age of majority, they can sue their non-custodial parent for any child support that went unpaid. Child support is meant to pay for the child's basic needs, such as clothing, food, shelter, healthcare, and education.
The amount of child support a parent must pay depends on many factors, and the parents are each required to submit a financial statement to the court that will order child support, which should include income, expenses, assets, and debts.
Obviously, a child support order is no good if it's more than the supporting parent can afford to pay. For that reason, a family court will try to order child support payments in amounts that the parent can realistically be expected to meet, taking their income and mandatory expenses (taxes, mandatory union dues, shelter, food, etc.) into account.
However, if your income is significantly less than your theoretical earning potential, a court might calculate payments as if you had a higher-paying job. For example, if you are earning $35,000 per year as a janitor, but have an advanced degree and experience that would allow you to easily obtain a much higher-paying job if you tried, a court might order you to pay an amount that would be appropriate with the higher-paying job.
There are many ways to enforce a child support order, if the parent is not being cooperative in making the required payments. A court can garnish wages, seize tax refunds, and even revoke passports.
However, there are also ways to modify or suspend one's child support obligations, and they typically come up when the supporting parent's financial situation has changed, such as with a job loss or sudden severe illness or injury.
Spousal support is also known as alimony and is sometimes awarded to one spouse after a divorce. It comes in the form of regular payments from the other spouse, and is designed to recognize the receiving spouse's contribution to the marriage, and ensure that they are compensated for it.
The law governing spousal support varies widely between individual states, and many states have different rules or formulas for determining spousal support which depend heavily on the length of the marriage.
Spousal support is typically only awarded after long marriages (usually 5 years or more), because a court will generally presume that a person's economic situation won't be significantly changed by a short marriage; after a short marriage, the couple gets divorced, and ends up in roughly the same economic place as they occupied before they were married.
However, when two people are married for a very long time, their economic situation, and future earning capacity, changes dramatically. After all, if one spouse gives up a promising career to become a homemaker, and fills that role for many years, they won't exactly be able to pick up where they left off if they get divorced. If the couple is very well off when the marriage ends, the spouse who will end up in a worse economic situation is the one entitled to support. Generally, they are entitled to support proportionate to the effort they put into maintaining the household and the marriage, and to allow them to live roughly the same lifestyle that they were accustomed to during their marriage.
Sometimes alimony will be awarded in a single lump-sum payment (this is good if the other spouse has marketable skills, and just needs time to get a new career off the ground), or in the form of periodic payments, either for a set period of time, or permanently.