Bench Card: Ordering Retroactive Support
Child Support and the Judiciary
At the time the initial support order is established, in some states an order setting a retroactive amount may also be entered including genetic test costs, birthing costs and fees. Research has shown that the “longer the time for which noncustodial parents are charged retroactive support, the less likely they are to make any payment on their child support order once established” (HHS, Office of the Inspector General, The Establishment of Child Support Orders for Low Income Non-Custodial Parents, p.13). Results also suggest that higher arrears, in themselves, substantially reduce both child support payments and formal earnings for the fathers and families that already likely struggle in securing steady employment and coping with economic disadvantage, a serious unintended consequence of child support policy. For a study of the growth of child support arrears see Assessing Child Support Arrears in Nine Large States and the Nation by The Urban Institute (2007), which estimated that only forty percent of child support arrears will be collected within ten years. However, courts should ensure that the noncustodial parent does not avoid financial responsibility for his or her children by delaying the entry of a support order.
To review state law and procedures for retroactive support, go to the Intergovernmental Referral Guide (IRG), select the state you are researching and click GO, and scroll to section I. Support Order Establishment. In deciding the period of retroactive support, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges recommends that judicial officials review the retroactive support order checklist on page 6 of their publication, A Practice Guide: Making Child Support Orders Realistic and Enforceable. Selected examples from this checklist are:
- Determine the reason for the delay in establishing the order.
- Did the noncustodial parent know of the existence of the child?
- Was the noncustodial parent actively avoiding service?
- Apply the child support guidelines for any retroactive period.
- Determine how payment of this judgment for retroactive support will affect the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay on-going support.
- Set an equitable method of repayment of retroactive support as permitted by state law.
- If allowed in your jurisdiction, determine whether and how much the noncustodial parent should be ordered to reimburse additional expenses, such as birthing costs, and how this should be paid.
For a discussion of understanding and managing child support debt see The Story Behind the Numbers: Understanding and Managing Child Support Debt (ACF/OCSE Reports, May 2008).
For current information about the child support program, policy matters, state and federal office addresses, links to state websites, frequently asked questions, and links to related agencies, see the OCSE website.
An additional website that may be of assistance to judicial officials is the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), which provides judicial branch links to each state.