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Can You Be Issued Retroactive Child Support Orders?

Child support is issued in the majority of custody cases in California. The state considers both parents equally responsible for supporting the needs of their children. As such, the courts must order child support payments when there is a discrepancy in income or parenting time between the parents.

The state considers this assistance to be so vital that it doesn’t restrict the payments to the future. Many orders include retroactive payments, which may significantly impact your finances. To understand when retroactive child support may be ordered, it is necessary to know how California courts award it. 

How California Determines Child Support 

California law states that both parents are financially responsible for raising their children to adulthood. When parents are married or live together, it is assumed that they already share the financial burden of caring for the child. However, when parents need a custody order, the state uses strict guidelines to determine which parent will receive or pay funds and how much that will be. 

There are only two cases when support is unlikely to be ordered:

  • Both parents make the same amount of money and share custody equally, so they contribute equally to the child’s care.
  • One parent has full custody of the kids, and the other has no income source, so there is no way for them to pay. 

In all other situations, some amount of support will likely be ordered. To calculate this amount, the courts consider the following:

  • The number of children shared by the parents
  • The total number of children each parent has
  • The amount of time the children spend with each parent
  • The respective incomes of each parent
  • The other financial obligations of the parents

California provides a calculator to estimate how much support will be ordered. The paying parent will need to give that amount to the receiving parent on a monthly basis to help support their children. 

When Support Orders May Be Issued Retroactively

There are two situations when a child support order may be retroactive. The first is relatively standard. California back-dates these orders to the date when they were initially requested. If you request a child custody order outside of divorce proceedings, the new order will back-date payments to the date you filed your petition. 

In most cases, this does not occur if you are getting a divorce. Your finances remain joined to your spouse’s until the divorce is finalized. The order is issued simultaneously with the decree dividing your finances. As such, the support payments do not need to be back-dated. 

The other situation where orders may be applied retroactively is when orders need to be changed. Retroactive child support orders in California are most likely to occur if you take multiple months to resolve a petition to modify the order after a significant change in life circumstances. The new order will be back-dated to the petition for modification’s submission date.

For example, if you get a new job and your spouse requests an increase in assistance, the order will be retroactive to the date they file their request. You will be obligated to pay the difference between the original order and the new amount back-dated to when the petition was filed, in addition to paying the new amount every month in the future. 

This can also work in the other direction, though. If it is found that you have been overpaying, you will receive a new, lower order for monthly payments. This will then be further discounted for a period of months to cancel out the overpayment.

Retroactive Child Support vs. In Arrears

Note that a retroactive order is not the same as being in arrears. Being in arrears on support means that there was an existing order that you did not pay according to the schedule. The arrears are a debt you owe your co-parent and may put you at risk of legal penalties. In contrast, retroactive orders do not automatically include legal penalties because they are back-dated orders. You remain in good standing as long as they are paid according to the order schedule. 

However, you may still face legal penalties if it’s found that you withheld information about your finances that would have impacted the original California child support calculations. If the amount should have been higher, the new order will be back-dated to the issuance of the original decision, and you will be obligated to pay the difference. You may also face fines or penalties for failing to pay the difference.

The Impact of Retroactive Child Support Orders

A retroactive order can have a significant impact on your finances. Depending on how long ago it is back-dated, you may have to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to your co-parent. 

For example, imagine your co-parent petitions for a child custody agreement on January 1st. The petition is approved, and $500 in monthly support is ordered on April 1st. In that case, you will owe an additional $1500 in retroactive payments covering January through March on top of the $500 due in April. 

Amounts can grow even higher if it is determined that the order was issued incorrectly initially. Suppose a petition for modification is filed in July 2023, and it is found that the original order from July 2016 should have granted the co-parent an additional $500 a year. That could lead to a retroactive bill of $42,000. 

Avoiding Unnecessary Retroactive Orders

The best way to avoid retroactive child support orders is to resolve custody proceedings quickly, efficiently, and accurately. Expert family law attorneys, such as the skilled associates at Kaspar & Lugay, LLP, can help you pursue fair orders by providing accurate financial disclosures and resolving disputes quickly. Learn more about how we can assist you and protect your finances by scheduling your consultation with our proven family law attorneys today.