Military Child Support: Key Legal Issues
Service members face special challenges when supporting dependents, particularly when they are called for active duty overseas or face divorce or separation at home. Unlike in civilian courts where child support orders only apply to non-custodial parents who are separated or unmarried, the military branches in general consider it a service member’s duty to financially support his or her dependents regardless of martial or custodial status. This means that commanding officers have the authority to pursue non-judicial punishments even against service members who are married but who fail to support their families.
That being said, this article focuses specifically on service members who are divorced or separated and who share custody of their children. Below, you’ll find general information on how child support applies to service members and different ways that such support can be collected from a parent in the military.
Determining Final Child Support Amounts
The amount and schedule of child support payments is ultimately determined by state law, and the process for determining child support is similar for both military and non-military parents. Parents who decide to share custody may reach an agreement on child support which, if done properly, can set the amount and schedule of payments. If the parents do not reach an agreement, they can bring their case to court and a judge will decide the amount and schedule of payments according to state law. Most states have a formula for child support which takes into account the needs of the child as well as the income and liabilities of each parent.
While states may have set support formulas, courts understand that each family is unique and can therefore adjust a support formula based on a family's needs. This is particularly important for military families who should make sure that their child support order explains what to do if the military parent is deployed overseas, or cannot access her bank accounts. Some states may have special statutes in place for military parents, so it’s best to consult a local family law attorney to ensure that the child support is fair and complies with state laws.
Regardless of the way a child support amount is determined, it’s important for both parents to keep copies of the final court order or agreement so that they can refer to it if one parent fails to fulfill her duty.
Interim Child Support Payments Through the Military
If a non-military parent with primary custody needs child support payments before a court order is finalized, he or she may ask the military parent's commanding officer for assistance. The officer will investigate and can then order the military parent to make interim support payments.
Each military branch has its own regulations for determining child support payments, which are typically based on a formula that accounts for a service member's gross pay and Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH). A service member is required to pay these interim support payments until there is a court order or child support agreement with the other parent setting the amount and schedule of payments. The interim support payments through the military will not trump the child support contained in a court order or agreement.
Collecting Child Support from a Service Member
Once a child support amount and payment schedule is finalized, a military parent must follow that schedule just like any other parent. The military generally leaves the method of payment to individual service members. The Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS) allows military parents to set up a voluntary allotment, or an amount automatically withdrawn from pay, that can cover child support if the service member so chooses.
If a service member fails to pay child support, the parent seeking support can write a letter to the service member’s commanding officer, explaining the failure to fulfill a child support obligation and requesting the commanding officer's assistance. The non-military parent should include copies of the court order or agreement that lays out the terms of child support, and any other evidence that backs up the letter. The commanding officer can investigate and may punish the service member for failing to make payments, but will not be able to force the service member to pay without a court order.
If the military parent misses several months of child support, the custodial parent can go to court to enforce the child support order according to state laws. If the court then issues a wage garnishment order, the custodial parent can send the order to DFAS, which will then subtract child support payments directly from the service member's pay.
Consequences for Not Paying Child Support
Although the military cannot force a service member to pay without a court order, service members who are delinquent on their child support payments can still face severe penalties. If a commanding officer determines that someone under his or her command has failed to pay child support, that commander can impose non-judicial punishments such as extra duty rounds, reduction in rank, or reduction in pay.
Since the regulations for each branch of the military require service members to pay their debts and support their dependents, service members who fail to pay child support may be court-martialed under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Specifically, service members might violate:
- Article 92: Failure to obey order or regulation;
- Article 90: Willfully disobeying an officer, if the commanding officer ordered the service member to pay child support; and
- Article 134: Bringing discredit upon the armed forces.
For more information, including how to calculate child support or modify an existing child support order, see FindLaw's section on Child Support.