In Virginia, it is often a good idea for separating parents to negotiate their own child support agreements through mediation, rather than rely on the court to decide child support.
If the court decides the terms of your child support agreement, the judge will follow the child support guidelines outlined in the Virginia Code.
The amount required by the guidelines depends on the combined income of both parents and how many children they have together.
Based on these factors, the guidelines will set a minimum, obligated amount of support that will be paid by the parents on behalf of their children.
Because these guidelines are set by the legislature and applied by a judge, they may not work well in your individual situation.
For this reason, many parents choose to take the easier paths of either negotiating child support themselves or making an order through Virginia’s Department of Child Support Enforcement (DCSE).
Drafting Your Own Agreement: A Flexible Alternative
In Virginia, parents are legally obligated to provide financial support to their children.
Courts generally don’t care how you support your child, as long as you and your co-parent both act in the best interests of the child.
For this reason, parents generally have two options for establishing child support:
- Option 1: Draft the order yourself as part of your Property Settlement Agreement during a divorce; or,
- Option 2: Apply for a child support order through Virginia’s Department of Social Services.
Option 1: Draft the Order Yourself
One alternative to having the court decide on a child support agreement is to negotiate the agreement yourself.
That way, you can your co-parent can decide how much support is needed for your child, and in what form that support should be.
This is legal, doable, and it may give you a little more freedom to customize the amount and type of support for your family’s unique needs.
More importantly, it is generally both quicker and cheaper than fighting over a child support agreement in court.
Drafting your own order is also pretty easy. In most cases, your divorce attorney will simply draft one for you as part of your Property Settlement Agreement.
If you can’t come to an agreement with your spouse on your own, you may also want to consider mediation.
Generally, you’ll perform this step after filing for custody and support through a Juvenile and Domestic Relations court.
Regardless of which option you choose, a judge will always review your order to ensure it meets the “best interests” of your child, and complies with all relevant Virginia laws.
Option 2: Apply for Child Support through the Department of Social Services (DSS)
If you and your co-parent can’t agree on a child support amount, or if they’re simply ignoring your requests, you should consider applying for child support through Virginia’s Department of Social Services.
All you have to do is fill out this form and send it to your local Division of Child Support District Office.
It’s important to note that you do not need an attorney to complete and file this application.
Generally speaking, you’ll only need to get an attorney involved in extreme circumstances, such as if your co-parent refuses to pay support for years on end.
Even then, it’s generally wise to go through DSS first before speaking with an attorney.
Important Elements of a Virginia Child Support Agreement
Virginia child support agreements generally consist of at least four major issues:
- How much the parent should pay.
- How often the parent should pay.
- The method of payment.
- The duration of the payments.
Some parents may want to settle other issues, such as contributions to their child’s college fund or who will be responsible for insurance premiums.
However, these aren’t necessary for a basic child support order.
1) How Much should I Pay
In Virginia, each parent’s share of child support is determined by how many days each parent will have with the children during the year.
The most common arrangement is shared custody where the non-custodial parent has the children at least 90 days each year.
The courts provide a child support worksheet that can be used to calculate each parent’s share of support as required by the guidelines.
The reason some parents choose to work this out through mediation or other similar methods is that you can alter the amount paid and the form of the “payment” to fit your family’s individual needs.
For example, if the parents know that the paying spouse will never be able to pay the amount suggested by the guidelines, they might agree to a lower, more achievable amount.
Further, doing so might actually promote a better relationship with the other spouse, as well as the children, and prevent the need for constant future litigation to enforce the support order.
Another benefit of negotiating your own support agreement is access to the barter system.
If a parent is cash-poor but wealthy in skills or connections, they might arrange to pay child support by offering their skills to the other parent.
For example, they might offer to fix the family car or repair things around the house in place of a monthly payment.
This would result in a win-win for both parents.
In matters of support, creativity and cooperation might promote the family’s objectives much better than the one-size-fits-all amount required by the support guidelines.
2) How Often Should I Pay?
If decided by the courts, the payments made by non-custodial parents will be required on a monthly basis.
Any additional payments may count as “gifts,” and will not count toward the next month’s payment.
Further, each time a parent fails to make the full payment as ordered, they can be held in contempt of court.
However, there is nothing to prevent parents from agreeing to payments or services every two weeks, or even every other month, if they choose to settle the matter themselves.
This is the beauty of making your own agreement; the parents decide how to best meet the needs of their own child, rather than having a judge decide on the matter.
3) The Method of Payment
Generally, support payments are made in a way that makes them easy to track.
Because the paying parent is always susceptible to accusations by the other parent that he/ she has not paid, most parents use checks or money orders.
However, there’s no statutory requirement for how you pay child support, as long as it gets paid.
Theoretically, parents could arrange to make their support payments directly to their children’s service providers.
For example, you could negotiate a child support agreement in which one parent pays a certain amount of money into an investment account or trust to help pay for the child’s education.
Similarly, you could take on the payments for the family car, or pay for the child to go to a private school.
Even pre-paying for groceries could count as “paying” for child support if a judge agrees that it’s in the best interests of the child.
The main point is that the method of payment should be done in such a way that both parents and a judge can easily track and determine whether the payment was made.
4) Duration of the Payments
Finally, all parents in Virginia must provide for their children until they turn 18 years old.
However, you may have to continue making payments if your child:
- Is still a full-time high school student; and
- Is not self-supporting, and currently lives in the home of the person seeking support.
In this situation, payments will need to be made until the child is 19 or graduates from high school.
As one notable exception, support must continue for a child above the age of 18 who is severely and permanently physically or mentally disabled.
Smart parents generally negotiate their own child support agreements outside of court because it means less time and expense, and it allows you to customize your agreement for your situation.
If you can work with your spouse, you may get a better deal through agreement than you could get under the support guidelines.
However, you should always take the best interests of your children into consideration.