How A Child Support Case Works

Step 1: Open the Case

Either parent can open a child support case, as can a child’s legal guardian. Having an order from a judge for child support to be paid does not automatically open a child support case. 

To open a case in California, fill out the online application or visit your local child support agency – agency locations can be found here.

After an application is submitted, the applicant will be contacted by their local office to assist with the process of obtaining a child support order with the court.

There are many benefits to opening a child support case:

  • If you do not yet have an order, we provide assistance to both parents through all steps of the process.
  • In certain situations, we can help you avoid court completely.
  • Once you have an order, we keep official records, protecting both the payer and the recipient.
  • We can assist recipients with enforcement of the order.
  • We can help payers avoid or resolve negative enforcement actions if you are unable to pay.

See our instructional video below, “How To Open A Child Support Case” for more details on this process.

Step 2: Locate the Parents

Before a child support order can be made, both parents of the child need to be located. There is no guarantee they will be found, but the more information we have, such as the parent’s date of birth and Social Security Number, the easier it will be.

Watch our “Locating a Parent” Quick Tip video below for more detailed information about this step.

Step 3: File a Summons & Complaint

After the case is opened, the parent being asked to pay child support will be given a Summons and Complaint packet. This is legal notification that you have been named in a child support case. 

You only have 30 days to respond, or a “default” child support order may be ordered by the judge without your financial situation being considered.

See our instructional video below, “I Received a Summons and Complaint – What Do I Do?” for more information about this very important package of documents.

 

Step 4: Establish Legal Parentage

If you have been served with a Summons and Complaint, and you do not believe you are legally responsible for the child or children you are being asked to pay child support for, you have the right to request proof and we will assist you free of charge. This is either DNA testing to determine parentage (which is more than 99% accurate), or proof that the parents were legally married at the time of the child’s birth. 

If you do not request proof, you can still be assigned legal parentage without your consent. 

Step 5: Create a "Stipulated Agreement"

If you would like to avoid going to court, some local agencies offer “Family Meetings” that allow both individuals to meet with a child support caseworker, either together or separately. If both parents can agree on an amount, their signed document becomes the “Stipulated Agreement,” which is filed with the court. 

This option may not be offered in all child support offices.

For more on the benefits of this, see our “Family Meetings” instructional video below.

 

Step 6: File the Support Order

If there is no Stipulated Agreement, a court date will be set. The judge will review the financial and other relevant information from both parties and decide on an appropriate amount of child support to be ordered. 

If either parent can get medical insurance, the court will consider that cost in deciding the amount of child support ordered.  

Below, our instructional video “How Does the Court Determine a Child Support Amount” includes more information on this decision, which becomes the official child support order.

 

Step 7: Make or Receive Payments

After a child support order is set, payments are scheduled to begin. There are many options for payment but if the parent ordered to pay is employed, their employer will be required to make those payments by withholding the funds from their paycheck. This is mandated under Federal law for child support orders and does not imply a failure to pay. 

All payments are recorded and this can provide security for the parent paying support in case there is any disagreement. 

 

Step 8: Enforcing the Order

A child support order is a legal court order. Parents who refuse to pay or delay paying their child support face enforcement actions that can include:

  • Suspension of their driver’s license or passport
  • Revocation of professional and occupational licenses
  • Bank and property liens
  • Interception of tax refunds
  • Interception of lottery winnings

Also, by California state law, unpaid court orders get charged 10% interest.

As a last resort, civil contempt charges may also be filed. If you have trouble paying your child support, talk to your local agency right away. There are programs available to help parents who are trying in good faith to pay their support.

For more on the consequences of unpaid child support, see our instructional video, “My Driver’s License has been suspended due to child support. How can I get a release?”

 

Step 9: Modify the Order (if changes are necessary)

If either parent or guardian has a change in circumstances after a child support order is set, which could be losing a job, changing jobs, or a change in custody or visitation, the order may qualify for modification.

Your local agency or the Family Law Facilitator at your county courthouse can assist with this. 

Step 10: Closing the Case

There are many reasons why a child support case can be closed. The usual one is that the youngest child reaches the age of 18, is no longer a full-time high school student, and no past-due balances are owed. At that time both parents are notified by the child support agency, and the case stays open for 60 days after this notification.  

All records are maintained for at least four years and four months in accordance with federal law.

 

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