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Whether biological or adoptive, living together or apart, married or divorced, both parents have a legal duty to provide for their child. In Australia, child support payments ensure parents maintain these financial obligations following separation But what does child support cover? The answer to this question depends on whether there is an agreement between the parties or if the Department of Human Services (‘DHS’) has made an assessment under the Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989 (Cth).

Our family lawyers are here to help you fully understand your rights as a primary caregiver so that you can make sure your little one is looked after in the long run. Below, we will explain how child support is calculated in Australia which expenses are eligible and what steps you can take to ensure your child’s needs are met.

What is child support?

Child support is a payment from one parent to another (whoever is the primary caregiver) to assist with the expense of looking after their child. A primary care-giver does not have to be a biological parent, it can be any legal guardian who looks after a child for at least 35% of the year.

Calculating child support

Child support can be negotiated through private discussion between parties or assessed by DHS uses a complicated formula to determine how much child support you will receive as a primary caregiver. Some of the main factors considered in this calculation include:

  • How many children there are;
  • How old these children are;
  • How much each parent earns;
  • How much money is required for parents to support themselves; and
  • How much time each parent spends caring for the children.

Note that DHS will only issue a child support assessment on your behalf once you have provided evidence that the person you are seeking support from is the child’s biological, adoptive or same-sex parent.

What age does child support stop?

Child support payments are generally made until the child in question turns 18. However, these payments can cease early if the child:

  • Demonstrates that they are self-sufficient;
  • Gets married or begins a de facto relationship;
  • Is adopted by another family; or
  • Passes away.

If a child aged 18 and over is unable to support themselves, the Court is permitted to make an order for ‘adult child maintenance’, whereby both parents must continue to provide financial support. This can occur if the child is:

  • Undertaking secondary or tertiary education; or
  • Living with a mental or physical disability.

What does child support cover?

Child support can cover a range of expenses including clothing, education, housing, food, transport and healthcare.
When child support is assessed by DHS, they will send a letter reporting on their assessment, determining a lump sum to be paid regularly to the primary care-giver.

It’s easy to assume that the figure presented from a Child Support Assessment is the full amount you’ll receive. However, in situations where the paying parent has made other payments in the specified period, these expenses can be credited by the DHS towards the amount payable.

These payments can be classified as ‘non-agency’ or ‘prescribed’.

Non-agency payments

A ‘non-agency payment’ is one made by the paying parent to the receiving parent, or to a third party on behalf of the receiving parent or both parents. It can also take the form of a non-monetary transaction, such as property ownership transfer or service provision.

In order for this type of payment to be taken into account, DHS must believe that both parents agree this payment was made towards child support liability.

Prescribed expenses

Prescribed expenses’ apply in cases where the paying parent maintains less than 14% childcare. These costs may be claimed up to 30% of the total amount payable, and include:

  • Childcare costs;
  • Essential medical and dental fees;
  • Public school fees;
  • Uniforms and textbook costs;
  • Accommodation fees such as rent or mortgage repayments; and
  • Vehicle maintenance and usage fees.

Private agreements

The Child Support Assessment Act also allows for two types of private agreements (not involving the DHS), which can set or amend payments to account for extra expenses such as:

  • Private health insurance premiums;
  • Private school fees; and
  • Additional charges to meet any ‘special needs’, such as specific medical costs.

The first is a Binding Child Support Agreement which brings strict legal terms and conditions ,but also gives greater flexibility, such as lump payments or property transfer in place of monetary provisions. Before entering this agreement, both parents must receive independent legal advice.

Alternatively, you can arrange a Limited Child Support Agreement, which does not require any legal support. And suited to shorter time frames and more amicable separations. With terms that can expire after three years or earlier Although, you do not require legal advice to enter into such an arrangement, with a matter this important we strongly recommend that you seek professional advice before entering into such an agreement.

What to do if you think an assessment is unfair

If you disagree with the assessment outcome, we recommend getting in touch with a legal professional to discuss your next steps.

You can also apply to the DHS to alter your child support assessment to account for special circumstances, such as when:

  • The assessment fails to correctly reflect your ability to pay child support;
  • It is expensive to organise parent-child visits, for instance if you need to book your child a plane ticket so they can visit your former partner;
  • Your child requires additional medical care, such as braces or an operation; or
  • You and your former partner previously agreed that your child should attend private school or take part in an extracurricular activity.

Secure child support with trusted legal advice

Legislation surrounding child support is complex, so it’s natural to feel concerned about your family’s financial future. Our dedicated family lawyers are on hand to help you understand your child support entitlements in ACT and NSW. Please get in touch for specialist advice that will ensure your child’s wellbeing is sufficiently supported after separation.