Family Law

Child Support and Public Assistance

By Kristina Otterstrom, Attorney
If you’re single, separated, or divorced, it can be difficult to cover your child’s financial needs. State or federal assistance is available to parents who are struggling financially, but you may need to give up some or all of your child support.

Should I Apply for Child Support or Public Assistance?

If you don’t apply for child support before requesting public aid, your state or local welfare or child support agency will likely attempt to collect support on your behalf. All states require parents to financially support their own children, so the government can go after "deadbeat" parents that don't make their support payments by imposing wage garnishments for future support and demanding reimbursement for any money and services it had to provide to your family as a result of the other parent's failure to pay support.

Child support is primarily based on parental income, but it can be difficult to collect from a parent who shirks their support obligations. In those situations, a custodial parent might prefer to get immediate help through public assistance and let the state take control of any child support collection efforts.

What Happens to Child Support if I Receive Public Aid?

The rules regarding child support vary across states, however, you usually can’t collect child support payments and state or federal assistance at the same time. Most states require parents to sign over rights to collect child support while receiving aid. Certain states like New York and California allow parents to receive a very small amount of child support in addition to public assistance—a maximum of $50 per month. Other states collect the entire child support payment directly from the parent who pays support.

What Kinds of Public Assistance are Available?

Depending on your income and household circumstances, you may qualify for one or more types of public aid. Certain forms of assistance are only available if you are the primary custodial parent of your children. Some public assistance services include:

  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • food stamps
  • unemployment
  • Medicaid, and
  • child care services

What Happens to Back Child Support if I’m on Public Assistance?

If you’re owed back child support at the time you seek public assistance, you may lose the right to collect those child support arrears. The government can claim those funds and attempt to collect them directly from your child’s other parent. An exception exists if you’re owed a large lump sum payment. For example, if your ex owes you a $5,000 judgment for overdue child support payments and you’ve only received $2,000 in state assistance, you may be able to keep the difference. Some states allow parents to keep all past-due child support payments as long as they were due before the parent started receiving state aid. Just be aware that a large lump sum payment may count as an increase in your income and may reduce how much public assistance you are entitled to receive.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My three children are each from different relationships, but only one parent pays me child support. Is it better for me to seek child support from the others or file for public assistance?
  • Should I collect all the back child support I’m owed before seeking public assistance?
  • Does the child support I receive count as income for purposes of qualifying for public aid?
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