Every year, it seems there are more required items on kids’ school supply lists, and even surprise purchases that pop up during the school year. It begs the question: Can child support be used for back-to-school expenses?
The short answer is YES, of COURSE! Read below to learn more about what child support should and should not be used for.
Child Support in California: Who is Responsible
In California, child support is typically paid by the non-custodial parent (the “payor”) to the custodial parent (the “payee”) to help cover the costs of raising the child or children.
To modernize this definition a bit: since typically parents are sharing time with the child(ren) 50/50 and there is not a custodial versus non-custodial parent; there will be support paid by the higher earner (“payor”) to the lower earner (“payee”).
As divorce financial mediators, we sometimes have parents ask, “Why is support being paid at all, when we are sharing the time 50/50?”
The reason why is because the Court wants to ensure the children have the same, or similar, lifestyle in both homes. Therefore, if one parent is earning $500k a year and the other parent is earning $100k a year, even though the parent earning $100k could support the children, it will be at a much lower standard of living. This is what the court wants to avoid. Therefore, the goal of child support is to get the parties closer to an equal monthly income so that the children enjoy the same quality of life in both homes.
Using Child Support for Back-To-School Expenses & More
Child support funds can cover many back-to-school expenses, as it’s meant to ensure that children receive equivalent financial support from both parents, even if they are no longer together. It covers most costs related to the child’s well-being, including but not limited to:
Child support can be used to cover the child’s basic needs, such as food, clothing, and shelter. This means it is perfectly acceptable that the payee use the support to pay for their rent or mortgage, as well as groceries or clothes for the kids.
Child support covers educational expenses including school tuition, books, and supplies, and other related school costs (lunches, for example).
Child support can be used to pay for health insurance in the event the payee is the parent who is carrying the insurance.
Any medical expenses not covered by insurance, or dental or vision care not covered by insurance, is an expense the parents should split 50/50 outside of child support. Remember: above we said that child support is used to get the parties as equal in income as possible (or reasonable, in light of each party’s income). This is so splitting these types of costs 50/50 is fair since both parties have an equivalent pot to pull from. It is NOT reasonable if one party is earning $100k and the other $500k, and the $100k parent is also responsible for all out-of-pocket medical.
Either parent may ask the Judge to include childcare into the monthly child support number, for a parent to work or attend school. By including the childcare amount in the monthly support, the parties are in essence splitting the cost.
While some parents may find it beneficial to set it up this way, we have found that keeping childcare outside of child support and having the parties equally responsible for whatever it is, typically works better. Otherwise, each time the childcare situation changes, and it becomes more or less expensive, the child support number must also be modified.
Summer camp is where this really becomes an issue, since the week-long camps are often 3X the cost of childcare during the school year. So to avoid our clients having to return to modify their support when summertime or winter break hits, we opt out of including it in the regular support number and instead, have the parties set up a way to split it 50/50 every month, or when needed. The payee is welcome to use their child support to pay their portion of these costs because it is for the benefit of the child.
Extracurricular costs may include fees for sports, music lessons, or other extracurricular activities that benefit the child. The payee is welcome to use their child support to pay their portion of these costs, because it is for the benefit of the child.
This is another category of expenses that is best left being split outside of child support itself. Activities change, costs change, and it makes sense for parents to share these costs as they come up. Further, one parent may not agree with or be able to support the cost of some activities. Then it is up to the other parent to decide if they want to cover the cost entirely.
Child support can be used to cover transportation costs of the parent or the child, such as public transportation fees or car expenses related to the car that meets the child’s needs. This includes driving them to school and driving themselves to work to earn money to help support the child.
What Child Support SHOULD NOT Be Used For:
It’s important to note that child support payments are generally not meant to be used for the custodial parent’s personal expenses unrelated to the child. For example: the parents go on a Hawaii vacation without their children.
Courts expect that the funds are primarily directed towards the child’s well-being and needs. If you believe your child support is being used for something such as the payee parents lavish vacations, or their own needs instead of the children’s needs, there are a few steps you should take:
First, talk to your co-parent. See if there is a rational explanation for what you’re seeing that makes you suspect the support is being used inappropriately.
Second, if talking to your coparent is not an option, then consider setting up a mediation appointment. You can have the discussion in a safe environment, with a neutral third party available to assist in the conversation and help everyone understand the proper uses for child support.
In summary, child support in California is intended to cover various expenses related to a child’s well-being, but it should primarily be used for the child’s needs. While there are guidelines in place to ensure this, disputes, or concerns about the use of child support should be addressed.
Consulting with a mediator can provide specific guidance based on your unique situation. Contact West Coast Family Mediation Center to start.