Do you have to be divorced to get child support?

No. Parents have a legal obligation to care for their children, and that certainly includes financial support. If one parent leaves the household and stops acting as the custodial guardian of their children, the custodial parent can file for child support, regardless of marital status.

Sad little girl looks into camera while parents fight in background

With that said, laws vary greatly from state to state, and if you’re considering a child support case, you should speak with your attorney to make sure you understand your rights and obligations. This is especially important if you’re planning on sharing custody of your child or children with your ex-partner.

With that said, here are a few important things to keep in mind. Note that this is an overview, and no part of this answer is intended as legal advice.

  • Parents can file for child support as soon as it is necessary. The party with custody of the child (or children) is entitled to reasonable support from the non-custodial parent. To receive that support, they must file with a state child support agency.
    Contacting a state agency is often a fairly simple process, and for the most part, the agency handles much of the legwork. In Illinois, for instance, the Department of Healthcare and Family Services will search for the non-custodial parent, establish paternity, and obtain and enforce the child support order. The custodial parent simply needs to complete an online application form.
    Note that child support is typically prospective. That means that it’s not retroactive to the date it was issued—the sooner the custodial parent files, the sooner they can receive reasonable child support. For most custodial parents, the safest course of action is to apply for child support right away (but, again, consult an attorney).
  • If parents share custody, the situation can be more complicated. A court will typically determine child support based on income disparity between the partners, parenting time schedules, and other factors. If, for example, both parents have similar incomes and they spend a similar amount of time with the child, the court might not grant child support to either of them.
    If you don’t have information about the other parent’s income, don’t worry—the court will request that information and make a fair determination.
  • A divorce or separation does not change parents' obligations. However, the final terms of a divorce may change child support amounts. For instance, the divorce court may make important determinations for custody and visitation.
    As such, a court may grant a temporary child support order (a “pendente lite" order) while a divorce or custody case proceeds. Custodial parents may have to file a pendente lite motion to receive this type of child support order.
    Child support payments can also change if either parents' financial circumstances change. This is typically accomplished by a Motion to Modify Child Support Order. When considering a temporary or permanent child support modification, courts evaluate changes in parental income, marital status, and the child’s financial need.
  • The other parent’s visitation rights are not affected by child support payments. In other words, you can’t prevent the other parent from visiting the child because they haven’t made child support payments on time.

To file for child support, look up the requirements for your state. Many states have online applications to make the process easier.

If you’d prefer not to apply online, contact a child support agency in your area. Be prepared to provide relevant documentation supporting your claim, and remember, if you’re involved in a custody dispute or divorce, you should seek advice from a qualified attorney working in your state where the divorce has been filed.