How to File for Child Support in California

Your child relies on you for food, shelter, warmth, health care, and so much more. Raising a child born in 2015 could cost an estimated $310,000 or more. Few parents can handle these expenses alone. Filing for child support can help. California's Child Support Services team can help you get the funds you need when you need them.

A court order for child support (such as one you might get during your divorce) doesn't open a child support case. To open a case, you must file with the Child Support Services agency. Here are the steps to follow:

Step 1: Fill out an application

The California Child Support Services agency requires paperwork to initiate a case. Two options exist. You can create a login with the agency and fill out the documents online. Or, you can download a hard copy, print it, fill it out, and take it to the regional child support office near you.

Applications typically take about 45 minutes to fill out. Prepare for questions on the following topics:

  • Parent facts: Where do you live? Were you married? Are either of you U.S. citizens?
  • Parentage: Do you have documents proving that the child is yours? How are you related?
  • Family violence: Has anyone in this family been violent toward someone else in the family? Do you have court orders or arrest records about that incident?
  • Visitation: How many hours each month does the child spend in the home of the person who does not have custody? What are the hours of these visits?
  • Health insurance: Do the parents have coverage? How much does it cost? Who pays for the child’s coverage, and how much does that cost?
  • Income and expenses: How much does each party make in salary, tips, investments, and other sources of income? How much does each party spend per month on things like rent, food, utilities, and more?
  • Child support: If you’ve already made child support arrangements, how much has each party paid?

Step 2: Connect with the other parent

Some parents know where their child's other parent lives or works. They can enter this data on enrollment forms, and the case can move forward quickly. If you don’t know where the other parent is, your local child support agency can help.

California laws state that local child support agencies can access tools like the California Parent Locator Service, the U.S. Postal Service, and the Federal Parent Locator Service to find parents required to pay child support.

When you complete your child support application, provide the other parent’s name, Social Security number, last known location, last known phone number, last known employer, and date of birth. If you don’t have this information, use “unknown” to indicate that you need extra help.

In general, the more information you can provide about the other person, the better. The Federal Parent Locator Service says the Social Security number and the last employer’s name and address are the two most important pieces of data you can provide. If you don’t have them, you could offer other information, such as the following:

  • Contact information for relatives or friends
  • Contact information for former employers
  • Details about unions or professional organizations the person might work with
  • The name, place of birth, date of birth, and maiden name of the person’s parent(s)

When the agency finds the other parent, they'll create a packet of documents and deliver them. The parent has 30 days to respond. Parents who don't respond can be ordered to pay an amount the agency deems appropriate.

Step 3: Create an agreement 

Some agencies offer mediation, allowing couples to set child support payments in a safe and supported environment. They can skip the courtroom, which saves both time and money. These meetings can reduce stress levels, too.

Couples who agree sign formal documents filed with the court, and the payments are court-mandated. 

If couples can't agree, they must go to court. The agency can help couples fill out paperwork, file it, and set dates with the California court system. Trials move quickly, and parents should be prepared to offer proof of their income and debts. At the end of a court case, judges set a formal child support payment amount.

Step 4: Make or receive payments 

If the court orders payments, the funds are withheld from the parent's wages before paychecks are cut. All payments are recorded by the Child Support Services agency.

Some parents attempt to skip payments by quitting their jobs or accepting under-the-table payments from illicit employers. If a court orders payments, a parent can face stiff legal consequences for noncompliance.

Per California law, unpaid court orders come with a 10% interest fee. Parents could also face the following:

  • Suspension of driver’s license
  • Property liens 
  • Garnished tax refunds or lottery winnings 

Step 5: Stay in touch 

Families change, and sometimes, the child support payments adjust accordingly. 

Child support payments could change due to the following:

  • A child's movement from daycare to elementary school
  • A child's illness that requires big insurance payments
  • A parent's unemployment
  • A parent's incarceration 

Either parent can visit the California Child Support Services agency and ask to modify the agreement. Changing the order can take time, but it's better to work through the process than skip payments.

Step 6: Close the case

When a child reaches age 18 and is not a full-time high school student, payments can stop. When this happens, the case is closed. Records are maintained, but the agency has no work left to do.

What about CalWORKs?

CalWORKS (or the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids program) provides aid to eligible California families based on income. Your child may already be enrolled in CalWORKS if your family has a small income or a disabled parent.

If your child is enrolled, you do not need to apply for child support payments. Your case is automatically referred to your local child support agency. If you have questions about this process or don't know if you’re enrolled, contact your local office.

If you’re not enrolled in CalWORKS, you must follow the steps we’ve outlined above to open your case and start getting child support payments from your ex.



It's Getting More Expensive to Raise Children. And the Government Isn't Doing Much to Help. (August 2022). Brookings. 
How a Child Support Case Works. California Child Support Services.
Apply for Child Support Services. California Child Support Services.
How a Child Support Case Works. California Child Support Services.
California Code Regs. Title 22, 113100, Local Child Support Agency Responsibilities. Cornell Law School.
Finding the Noncustodial Parent. Administration for Children and Families.
California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids. California Department of Social Services.
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