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What Are the Differences Between Child Support and Spousal Support?

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For many couples who choose to end their marriage, the financial aspects of a divorce are some of the most difficult to manage. Even in an amicable divorce, it can be hard to adjust from living in a household with the combined income and assets of both spouses to living on one’s own. In a higher conflict divorce, disputes over money can become messy, both related to the division of marital property and to the possibility that one spouse will continue to owe the other monthly payments for child support, spousal support, or both after the divorce is finalized.

Many arguments over child support and spousal support arise out of a misunderstanding of their purpose. If you take the time to understand why these different payment obligations are often put in place and how the money should be used, you may feel more comfortable with how they are handled in your own divorce. Should you have any further questions, you can always get help from a Kane County divorce attorney who can advise you as you work toward a fair agreement.

What Is Child Support?

Child support obligations are meant to ensure that a child receives financial support from both parents. When the parents are married, child support is presumed to come from their combined income and assets. However, when the parents are divorced or legally separated, or when they have never been married, the court will have to issue a child support order, usually requiring that one parent make regular payments to the other.

The way child support payments are calculated varies from state to state, but common factors include the parents’ income, the amount of time that the child lives with each parent, and the number of children involved, as well as the estimated amount of support the child would have received in a two-parent household. For example, in Illinois, child support obligations are calculated based on a proportionate share of the two parents’ combined income. In most cases whichever parent has the larger amount of parenting time with the children will receive monthly payments from the other. In some other states, child support is calculated simply as a percentage of the non-custodial parent’s income.

At a base level, child support is meant to provide for the child’s regular needs, including food, clothing, shelter, education, and ordinary healthcare through the child’s 18th birthday. In some cases, the court may decide to grant additional support for a child’s college or private school expenses, extracurricular activities, large medical expenses, or special needs.

What Is Spousal Support?

Unlike child support, which is a necessary part of any divorce involving minor children, spousal support is only awarded in some divorces. Some people who are ordered to pay spousal support may view it as a punishment, but from a legal standpoint, this is not the case. In Illinois, a no-fault divorce state, neither spouse’s actions that may have contributed to the divorce are considered when determining whether to award spousal support. Rather, the decision depends on a demonstration of a spouse’s need.

Need-based spousal support, also known as maintenance or alimony, may be awarded based on a number of factors. These include each party’s income, assets, current and future earning capacity, age, health, accustomed standard of living, and contributions to domestic duties, child care, and the other partner’s education or career that may have impaired one’s own career advancement. If the couple has a pre-existing prenuptial or postnuptial agreement that addresses spousal support, the court may also consider it. If the court determines that there is good reason for spousal support, it will issue an order specifying how, and how much, one party must pay the other.

Spousal support obligations are usually not indefinite. Rather, they may be issued for a time period that the court deems appropriate, which in Illinois is typically calculated based on the length of the marriage. Other events may also trigger the end of spousal maintenance, including the death of either party or the receiving party’s remarriage or cohabitation with a romantic partner.

Enforcement and Modification

When child support or spousal support is included in a divorce decree or judgment, the terms are legally binding. You may find it tempting to withhold payment if you are having an argument with your ex, or you may find it difficult to make payments if you are struggling financially, but you should know that missing payments can lead to serious consequences if your ex files a petition for enforcement. You may be ordered to make any missed payments with interest and cover your ex’s court costs, and you could even be held in contempt of court, resulting in possible fines and jail time. In the case of missed child support payments, you could also face the suspension of your driver’s license.

If you believe that your existing child support or spousal support order is not appropriate for your current situation, it is important to legally pursue a modification rather than to simply stop paying. A modification may be in order if either party has experienced a significant change in employment or income, or if there has been a change in either party’s financial needs. If your petition for modification succeeds, the court can issue an updated order that better accounts for the present circumstances.

If you look at child support and spousal support not as punishments or rewards, but as an important means of providing for someone in need, you may be able to mitigate some of the conflict inherent in the divorce process and the following years. If you are understanding of your spouse’s needs, and especially your children’s, you may even be able to work cooperatively to reach a resolution to your divorce that leads to the best possible outcome for the entire family. If you encounter any challenges along the way, know that a St. Charles family law attorney can help to protect your interests during divorce negotiations and at any point in the future at which an enforcement or modification is necessary.