As a stepparent, you have no legal obligation to support your stepchild (unless you adopt the kid, in which case, you aren't a step anymore!). Reality is far more complex, however. Child support and other financial decisions between your partner and your partner's ex are major decisions, often determined during the divorce. Like custody decisions, financial decisions can be altered as situations change—and you certainly are a situation!
If your partner gets child support for your stepkids, your financial earnings shouldn't alter the amount your partner gets. If, however, you're providing a lot of the support (food, shelter, and clothing), the ex can make a case that your partner now has a higher amount of income available to raise the kids and might try to get child-support payments reduced.
If child support (or alimony) is part of your life, you'll often find yourself deeply enmeshed in the financial life of your partner's ex. (I know, this is not exactly where you want to be.)
If the stepkids are of college age and are applying for financial aid (loans, grants, or scholarships), be aware that the amount of parent contribution the colleges expect is often figured on the total household income. If you are concerned about the effect of your finances on your partner's child support or your stepkid's financial aid, consider signing an agreement to keep your finances separate.
No matter what, you're probably going to be very affected by financial arrangements for your stepkids. After all, it's money coming in or going out of your household.
How Much Child Support?
Many states provide guidelines, such as tables, formulas, and other ways of determining who pays what and when. Your partner's child support will be figured by looking at the child's needs (including education, insurance, day care, and special needs of the kids), the income and needs of the custodial parent, how much the parent paying child support can afford to pay, and the standard of living before divorce or separation. (This last consideration is a goal, not a guarantee; the courts understand that everybody's standard of living usually drops after a divorce.) Here are a couple of things to remember about child support:
Don't Be Wicked
Deadbeatism isn't just for men—biomothers can be just as deadbeat as biodads. All parents, whether male or female, have a legal and moral responsibility to care for their children financially.
- Child support isn't tied to custody or visitation arrangements. That means that a parent isn't allowed to withhold support payments, even if he or she disagrees with the ex, or even if the ex is out of line and forbids visitation. If there's a visitation problem, your partner should go back to court to get the visitation enforced. Withholding support only hurts the children.
- A parent must support kids until they are of legal age (and this age varies by state), unless they are on active military duty, the child is legally declared emancipated, or the parent's rights and responsibilities are terminated.
What If the Support Is Late?
Exes often fight over support checks, and lateness is a common complaint. As a stepparent, you'll keep everybody's blood pressure lower if you don't butt in when support checks are late. Leave it up to your partner, and try not to nag or complain too much.
When a parent doesn't pay his or her child-support payment on time, the overdue amount is called an arrearage. Arrearages will rarely be forgiven. If your partner can't make a child support payment, get thee to the courtroom immediately for an adjustment!
Late support checks are sometimes a form of emotional testing by the ex. If the ex hasn't fully disengaged from the relationship, he'll sometimes test to see if his contributions still matter, if the family still cares. There's more about this kind of power play in Money Concerns and the Ex.
Understanding why the checks might be late doesn't make it okay. If the ex is chronically late with support checks or the checks stop coming, call the District Attorney's office. Being a deadbeat parent is highly illegal. If the custodial parent owes more than $1,000 in child support, that information may be reported to credit bureaus. Other consequences for a deadbeat parent may include blocking her driver's license or professional license renewal, garnishing her wages or tax refunds, seizing her property, finding her in contempt of court, or putting her in jail.
Child Support, a Taxing Issue
Child support is tax-free to the receiver, and it's not a deductible expense for the payee. Only one household can claim a child as a tax exemption each year. Some exes trade off. Legally, the person who has custody of the child for the longest part of the year is eligible for the deduction unless the other parent pays more than 50 percent of the child's support. (If you're taking a deduction for a noncustodial child, you'll need a claim form (IRS form 8332), and you'll need the other parent's signature.) Either way, the exes will have to cooperate. “What, again?” Yup.