When (and How) to Modify Child Support: A Primer for Single Parents

The child custody case of actors Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis illustrates an important question—if one parent is carrying more of the load, can they ask for more support?

Daughter watching mom fill out child support forms

JodiJacobson / Getty

Celebrity custody battles are usually not pretty, especially when they are played out in the public eye. But sometimes there are lessons single parents can learn from them. As the child custody proceedings of actors Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis continue to make headlines, the ensuing battle cry is familiar: single parenting is not for the faint of heart. The latest development raises questions surrounding child support modifications Wilde requested due to unequal income distribution and, by extension, “standard of living” differences between the co-parents.

It's an issue addressed every day in family courts across the United States, where 23% of children under the age of 18 (a whopping three times the global rate of 7%) reside with a single parent. Today’s modern families come in a myriad of configurations. But one thing remains constant: legal provisions not only exist to prevent kids from bearing the undue burden of their parents' split, but they can also be revisited at any point.

“The purpose of child support is to allow a child to maintain the same sort of lifestyle in two [different] households,” says Chelsea E. Gajewski, a family law attorney with Sodoma Law, underscoring the criteria for determining child support, and marital status is not one of them.

As a single mom of two teens, I’ve watched with a modicum of familiarity-turned-fascination as Don’t Worry Darling director Wilde and Ted Lasso creator Sudeikis litigate rather than co-parent their way through the wake of their nine-year relationship. While I can’t quite wrap my brain around the $4,000 worth of monthly laundry/cleaning expenses Wilde reportedly claims (not to mention her $10 million in assets), I do empathize with her conundrum: having to bear 100% of the costs associated with raising children while they're in her care, despite a co-parent who out-earns her. 

Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis seen in April 2023 in Los Angeles
Olivia Wilde and Jason Sudeikis seen at their child's soccer game in April 2023.

thecelebrityfinder/Bauer-Griffin / Getty

How Child Support Payments Are Decided

“The criteria used to determine child support is based on a few different things,” says Gajewski. She highlights a trio of major factors: each party's gross income; the number of overnights spent in each home; and any related credits (such as who is covering the children on their health insurance premiums). The final calculation used to determine child support boils down to the standard of living which, by definition, answers the question, What kind of lifestyle does each parent’s income allow them to create?

“[Standard of living] plays a major role [in determining child support] because it allows a child to live a similar lifestyle—and enjoy similar activities—in each parent’s home,” says Gajewski of a provision that seeks not to level the proverbial playing field between parents, but to put the child first.

In North Carolina, where Gajewski practices, she says it’s pretty simple. “If a party's gross income combined is $360,000 or less, [the state] has created a calculator...[to determine] each parent’s proportional parental obligation to that child,” says Gajewski, noting that the figure that must be met aims to support the child in a consistent lifestyle across two different households. 

Where You Live May Determine Life As A Single Parent

Key findings from a recent Lending Tree study show southern states are some of the worst for single parents when it comes to raising a family. Georgia earned the lowest score due to its dearth of protection for family leave and overall lack of affordability, exacerbated by low childcare assistance income level. Alabama and Florida are close on Georgia’s heels, and all ten of the lowest-ranked states for raising a family as a single parent fall in the South or Midwest.

Meanwhile, California (followed by Massachusetts and Vermont) leads the way as the best state for raising a family as a single parent, in large part due to a high workplace protection score. It also offers generous paid family leave, unpaid time to attend school activities, and the country’s sixth-highest income score. Regardless of where you and your kids reside, bear in mind: the ability to modify child support exists until a minor turns 18 or graduates from college. 

“The courts never make anything with children permanent because [circumstances] are always changing,” says Gajewski, noting that the needs and expenses of a child fluctuate based on their age. “[An adolescent] is going to have different expenses in middle school—playing all sorts of sports, participating in certain clubs, and going out with friends—[than they have as a child].”

This "financial change in circumstances," as the court calls it, can shift the balance. If you can document that change as being substantial since the original court order, it might warrant a modification. “Either one big change or a bunch of smaller changes can warrant this,” explains Gajewski. She offers this plausible example: If parent A has the child 200 overnights a year, compared to 100 overnights a year when the agreement was entered, that individual is incurring more expenses for that child now and might be entitled to receive more support.

Can Child Support Be Reduced?

As a working mom who has slowly gotten on my (financial) feet in the six years since my own divorce, I had another question: Namely, is child support ever reduced? This can happen, but according to Gajewski, a significant change in circumstances must be present. That does not merely equate to a parent who was not earning a living wage at the time of the child support guidelines being drawn suddenly earning more money, as there is a secondary provision here: Would a reduction in support be in the best interest of the children? In most cases, the answer to this question is no.

When, then, does it make sense to incur the cost of seeking legal counsel to consider seeking child support modification? “The idea—especially in North Carolina—is we want these children to feel like they're receiving the benefit of both parents' income in each household,” says Gajewski, who suggests making a cost/benefit analysis of your particular situation based on current calculations. “If you stand to receive $300 more per month or week with a new schedule, it’s definitely worth [seeking child support modification],” says Gajewski who, in the end, implores parents to remain focused on their children. 

“Whether [your ex] is using [their child support] for groceries or their mortgage payments, that is still all benefiting your child,” she says. Gajewski returns to the purpose of child support: Making sure a child is getting the same, or a similar, lifestyle in both parents’ homes—from attending field trips to having their own personal space at home.

For single parents with unanswered questions about child support guidelines and modification, Gajewski suggests sitting down with an attorney—even if just for one hour—to go over the specifics of their situation.

“It doesn't mean you have to hire that attorney—or that you’re going to end up spending thousands of dollars on legal fees," she says. "But knowledge is power, and once you get some of that knowledge, maybe you take it and do additional resource research and ask: Is this worth it for me and my child?”

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  1. Pew Research Center. U.S. has world's highest rate of children living in single-parent households. December 2019.

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