What is child support?
Child support is the money (or financial support) that one parent is legally obliged to pay the other parent for the benefit of the child when they don’t live together and one parent spends more time caring for the child than the other.
Parents have the primary duty to care and pay for the costs of their children. This applies even if the parents aren’t married and if they haven’t lived together. From July 2009, child support laws also apply to same-sex parents.
The Child Support Agency (CSA) is part of the Department of Human Services (DHS) and it administers most of the child support laws in Australia. When requested by parents, the CSA can assess the amount of child support payable and can coordinate the child support payments between parents.
Child support for adult children
Your duty as a parent to pay for your children generally end when your child turns 18. The duty may end earlier if the child is able to support him or herself, if they marry or if they are adopted.
Sometimes the duty to pay for your child’s expenses continues after the child turns 18. The most common circumstances to extend child support obligations are when the child has:
- not finished high school when they turn 18, or
- a physical or mental disability.
Child support assessment
The CSA can make a child support assessment to determine the amount of child support payable by the parent who has less care of the child. The CSA assessment uses a standard formula and takes into account the income of both parents, the percentage of time each parent spends caring for their child, the number of dependent children and any children from other relationships.
Parents need to notify CSA about the care arrangements for the child. This may be in the form of a written or verbal child support agreement, a parenting plan or a court order. If the parents can’t agree on what care arrangements are in place, the CSA will make a determination.
Self-managed child support
You don’t need to involve the CSA in your child support arrangements. If you agree with the other parent, you can decide upon the amount of child support, the form it will take (for example, cash or paying for expenses directly) and how it is paid.
You can do it yourself using a Child Support Agreement Kit (including Shared Parenting Plan).
If parents want to manage the child support themselves but are unsure how much is payable, then they can request that the CSA conduct a child support assessment.
Parents should note that if they self-manage their child support, they cannot receive more than the base rate of Family Tax Benefit Part A.
Collection and payment of child support
As part of a self-managed arrangement, parents may organise and pay the child support privately. In this situation, it is wise for parents to keep receipts or records of payments made.
Payment through the Child Support Agency
Parents may also request that the CSA collect child support payments and forward them to the receiving parent. The CSA can follow up on incorrect payments, overdue payments and they can also impose penalty fees for late payments.
Child Support Agreement
Parents can choose to formalise the child support arrangements by making a Child Support Agreement. There are two types of child support agreement, limited and binding.
Limited child support agreement
Parents are not required to seek legal advice before entering a limited child support agreement. A limited agreement gives parents some flexibility in their arrangements such as allowing parents to determine the amount and method of payment. However, the CSA will not accept the agreement if the child support payments in the agreement are less than the amount determined in a child support assessment.
A limited child support agreement can be ended:
- If both parties agree to terminate,
- After three years by either party,
- If the assessed child support payable changes by more than 15%, or
- By a court order.
Binding child support agreement
Parents can make a binding agreement that allows them to agree upon a child support amount if they separately get independent legal advice before making or ending the child support agreement.
A binding child support agreement can only be ended by making a new binding agreement or by a court order.
How to change child support
There are several ways to change the amount of child support payable, including:
- Lodging a tax return when the CSA has made a child support assessment using the default income because the parent didn’t provide information regarding their income.
- Giving CSA an estimate of a parent’s income when it is expected to, or has, reduced by at least 15%.
- Applying to the CSA to correct any mistakes or errors in the child support assessment.
- Notifying the CSA of any change of circumstances, including the birth of another child, change of care arrangements, unemployment and the reunion of separated parents.
Change of child support assessment
Under some special circumstances, a parent may lodge an application for a change of assessment. The types of cases where there might be special circumstances include:
- The costs of helping one parent communicate with or see the child.
- The special needs of the child.
- The costs of caring for or educating the child that is unusual and was intended by the parents.
- Any property or finances of the child.
- High childcare costs.
- Income that is earned to support a child that lives with the child support payer.
As well as showing special circumstances, the applying parent must also show that it is just, equitable and proper to change the child support assessment.
Appealing child support decisions
There is a process for appealing decisions made by the CSA or broader Department of Human Services. Only some decisions can be appealed.
The first step is to make an objection to the Department of Human Services directly. The objection must be made within 28 days of receiving notice of the decision. The Department will generally respond to the objection within 60 days.
Application to a tribunal or court
The Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT) can review certain objection decisions made by the Department. An application must be made within 28 days of receiving the objection decision notice.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) is also able to review limited decisions about child support.
Finally, in some circumstances a parent can apply to court. These circumstances include:
- Where there is a parentage dispute,
- Where a person is found not to be a child’s father but has already made child support payments and wants to recover them,
- Where a parent seeks an order for child support to be paid in a lump sum,
- To set aside or end a child support agreement where parents cannot agree,
- Where a parent seeks to depart from the child support assessment, and
- To appeal (in limited circumstances) an SSAT decision.
It is important that parents seek legal advice before making an application to a tribunal or court.
Child Support debt
Child support debts must be paid off even after the assessment has ended or the child turns 18. However, in some circumstances, a child support debt can be reduced and penalty fees can be waived.
Parents who are behind on their child support payments should seek legal advice.
When one parent and children live overseas
Australia has reciprocal arrangements with many countries that allow a parent living overseas to either make or receive child support payments through the relevant overseas agency. However, there can be lengthy delays in receiving payments.
The assistance that CSA can give parents depends on the country in question and whether the payer or payee is overseas. So if one parent is living overseas, the other parent should contact the CSA for advice.
Arrangements between Australia and New Zealand
Australia has special arrangements when one parent and/or the child are living in New Zealand. The CSA cooperates with New Zealand Inland Revenue to transmit payments free of charge. There is also greater accountability and follow-up measures available when one parent is living in New Zealand as opposed to another country.