Most people think about child support with specific gender roles in mind—the woman is the custodial parent, and the man pays child support.
But women pay child support occasionally—in which cases, preparation is key to ensure children are financially supported and skipped payments don’t disrupt parenting dynamics.
This quick guide tells you everything you need to know about child support enforcement and what women can do to prepare.
When do women pay child support?
According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, 82% of single-parent households were headed by mothers only. Women are considerably more likely to be custodial parents and receive child support payments.
When a woman pays child support, it’s usually determined in one of two ways: through an agreement between the parents or an order from a family court.
Many factors are involved in determining custody and child support arrangements. It’s not always as simple as “when men have primary custody, women pay child support.”
6 Factors That Courts Look at for Legal Child Support Agreements
Unfortunately, family separation and dissolution can be complex and messy. Courts consider some or all of these six primary factors when determining child support:
1. Which parent has physical custody
Physical custody describes which parent the children live with (both in the case of co-parenting). The court system prioritizes this factor because it affects the child’s wellbeing, quality of life, and future development.
If one parent has primary physical custody, the other can still have visitation rights or partial custody.
If the father has sole or primary physical custody, the mother will likely have child support obligations to meet.
In the case of joint child custody, other factors play a role in who ends up paying child support.
2. Which parent has legal custody
Legal custody describes which parent makes the important decisions about a child’s upbringing, such as education and healthcare.
Legal custody does not need to be the same as physical custody—parents can charge legal custody without sharing physical custody.
Parents with joint legal custody must work together to make decisions in the child’s best interest.
Women paying child support by themselves often have limited or no legal custody, meaning the mother is not part of major decision-making.
3. Household income for each parent.
Parents’ incomes play a critical role in determining spousal support. In the U.S., states usually use one of three methods to do so:
- The Income Shares model factors in each parent’s income to equalize the child support system and maintain their standard of living.
- The Percentage of Obligor’s Income model only focuses on the non-custodial parent, who is ordered to pay child support at a higher percentage based on their income.
- The Melson Formula is similar to the Income Shares model, but it also factors in parents’ expenses.
Most states either use Income Shares or the Melson Formula when determining who pays child support. These formulas are much fairer and factor in additional elements that the Percentage-of-Income model doesn’t.
For instance, if a non-custodial parent struggles financially, child support payments shouldn’t leave them unable to make rent—especially if the custodial parent is wealthy.
4. Number of dependents each parent has
If parents have other dependents (e.g., from previous marriages) to support, that can affect the amount of child support paid. This is especially true if a non-custodial parent has multiple payments to make.
And if one parent receives spousal support from the other, that can also lower their child support payments.
Most family courts factor other obligations into how much financial support they will need to pay for a child.
5. Expenses needed to support the child
Aside from parents’ income, courts look at other expenses that are required to support the child (or children), including the following factors:
- School supplies
In addition to these easy-to-plan-for expenses, courts also look at Section 7 child support expenses—those that parents share in proportion to their income.
- Insurance premiums for health, dental, vision
- Childcare expenses
- Medical and dental costs
- Travel for visitation or custody arrangements
- Extracurricular activities
Courts look at which parent covers the majority of these expenses when figuring out who is awarded child support.
6. Any possible exceptions
The above factors make it relatively easy for courts to come up with child support arrangements.
However, there are numerous reasons a judge would make exceptions to the standard calculations.
For example, if a divorced family has substantial assets, the court might order less child support because the parents can pool resources for their children’s benefit.
Other extraordinary circumstances that could lead to an exception include a parent having a chronic medical condition or disability, a personal tragedy, or one parent assuming more financial responsibility than the other parent.
The Consequences of Unpaid Child Support
The primary consequence of unpaid child support is legal action, which can include:
- Wage garnishment
- Asset seizure
- Denial of passports and driver’s licenses
- Incarceration (in extreme cases)
Quick Tips for Women Paying Child Support
Mothers paying child support face unique challenges.
Specifically, between 19-50% of single-mother families (depending on the number of children) live in poverty, while only 11.2% of single-father families are in the same situation.
Here are a few quick tips to follow if you owe child support as a mother:
- Try to settle the debt out of court, if possible.
- Negotiate a payment plan that fits your financial needs.
- Keep up with payments, even if it’s just a portion of the amount you owe.
- Create a budget to help stay on track with payments.
- Find out what happens if you can’t pay child support and discuss options with your attorney or local court for modifying the amount you owe.
- Consider consolidating your debt to make payments more manageable.
- Check your state’s laws regarding back child support payments and interest rate penalties.
Most of the time, women pay child support in proportion to their income, but there are several factors that can change this equation.
Your specific child support situation will be unique and determined by the court.
To better understand how much you might owe, you’ll have to consider your income level, the number of dependents each parent has, and the expenses needed to support the child.