Does Child Support Have to Be Paid Through Court?

By Heather Frances J.D.

mother and daughter

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It’s one thing to have a child support order in place, but it can be quite another thing to actually collect the payments, particularly if you and your ex-spouse are not on speaking terms. To help, the court may order that payments be withheld from the paying spouse’s wages and paid directly to the recipient spouse. However, if you and your ex-spouse agree on another way to transfer payments, you may bypass the state system.

Income Withholding

Most child support orders contain an income withholding order (IWO) whereby the court directs the paying spouse’s employer to withhold child support payments from his paycheck. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, parents make 70 percent of child support payments through income withholding. Under an IWO, an employer takes the money directly from the paying spouse’s paycheck and sends it to a state agency. The state agency then distributes the money to the recipient spouse. Payments do not actually go through the court itself.


Although state laws addressing child support payments differ, income withholding is typically mandatory, unless both parents agree that payments will be made some other way. Before such a payment arrangement is enforceable, the judge must approve the alternate arrangement and incorporate it in the child support order. If the judge issues an IWO but the parents agree outside court to some other method of payment, the IWO is still legally effective and the paying parent risks having payments withdrawn from his paycheck even though he is paying support using a different method.

Parental Choice and Enforceability

The custodial parent typically controls the method of payment. Income withholding through a state disbursement agency is the default method, so this can only change if the custodial parent agrees. If not, the court will likely enter an IWO, regardless of the paying spouse’s wishes. If the recipient spouse agrees to a change and the court approves it, the court will enforce that change. For example, if the parents agree, the paying spouse will send a check on the first of each month directly to the recipient spouse. The arrangement can be inserted into a court order and the court can enforce that order if the paying parent stops paying as scheduled.

Other Situations

It isn’t always possible for a paying parent to pay child support through an IWO. For example, a self-employed sole proprietor does not receive a paycheck, so there is no way to withhold support payments. However, in most circumstances, the paying parent can make payments directly to the state disbursement agency if the custodial parent prefers to receive payments that way, instead of directly from the paying parent. Even when a parent cannot comply with the IWO, he still has a legal duty to pay child support as ordered.