Children need financial support from both parents. When parents don’t reside together, what options exist to help establish and collect child support?
Regardless where you are in the process, you usually have two options to get assistance: a private attorney or the Child Support Enforcement Office (CSE). One option may be better in some circumstances, and the other option may be better in other cases. Let’s look at the differences.
Setting the amount of child support is always the first step. Child support amounts can be set by written, notarized agreement (like a Separation Agreement) or set by a judge. If you have a private attorney already working on a Separation Agreement, he or she can help you with calculating the correct amount of support to include in the Agreement. If CSE helps establish the amount of support, they will contact the other parent and try to reach a written agreement that becomes a court order (called a Voluntary Support Agreement). If agreement isn’t possible, either the private attorney or CSE can put the case before a judge to decide the amount of support to be paid.
Once an amount of support is established, it needs to be collected. CSE is an excellent and economical choice for many cases. The federal government set up CSE in 1975 because better child support collection reduces public assistance expenditures. It produces a net savings of tax dollars. However, CSE helps anyone, regardless of income. Their application fee is $25. For most custodial parents, that is the only expense. As a government agency, CSE has some resources that private attorneys do not. For example, CSE has access to the Employment Security Commission records to show where a parent works and their earnings. CSE intercepts tax returns automatically to apply to a child support arrearage. Also, CSE has leverage in being able to have a delinquent payor’s drivers’ license suspended; that isn’t used much because losing a drivers’ license can mean losing a job. Finally, CSE has sister agencies in other states, making it easier to handle cases where the other parent lives in another state.
Which cases are better suited for a private attorney? If it will be difficult to establish the noncustodial parent’s income for some reason, like if the other parent is self-employed or works for cash, a private attorney may be a better choice. These cases often use discovery (requiring the non-custodial parent to answer written questions under oath, to produce documents, or to testify at a deposition). They sometimes require expert witnesses who can take the parent’s expenses and work backward to calculate the income needed to live that lifestyle. With CSE’s caseload, such cases are difficult for CSE to pursue in as much detail as a private attorney could. In addition, CSE does not have the budget to hire expert witnesses or incur deposition costs for clients. Some clients may simply prefer to have more personalized service that comes with private counsel. Of course, a private attorney is much more expensive than CSE. A judge may (but is not required) to order the other parent to reimburse your private attorney’s fees.
Choosing between CSE and a private attorney depends on your individual case. Investigate both options, and choose the one best for your particular needs.
Kim K. Steffan is an attorney with Steffan & Associates, P.C. in Hillsborough, NC. She can be reached at 919-732-7300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was last updated in January 2020.