Child Support Enforcement

There are legal steps you can take if a parent with a child support obligation, under the terms of a court or government agency order, stops making payments. Federal laws allow the interception of tax refunds to enforce child support orders.

 Non-payment of child support is serious. Under the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984, district attorneys (D.A.s) or state's attorneys must help a parent collect child support.

 State laws provide options and resources for parents that need to enforce child support orders and collect past-due child support. For example, states can deduct child support from your lottery winnings. Other methods of enforcement include:

  • Credit reporting
  • Issuing a professional license suspension
  • Passport denial
  • Putting liens on real estate
  • Revoking a driver's license
  • Seizing property (including bank accounts)
  • Wage attachments

Read on for resources that cover the enforcement of child support orders, how to get your spouse to make court-ordered payments, wage garnishment, and other topics related to unpaid child support.

Past Due Amounts of Child Support

Courts are very strict about the enforcement of child support. When a payer falls behind, the court calls the past due support amount "arrearage," and the payer is "in arrears." If a payer finds him or herself in arrears, he or she can always ask a judge to reduce child support payments. However, the court reduces only future payments. The parent must still pay the arrearages in full, at no reduced amount. The court will enforce such payments.

Child Support Services

Each state has some version of a child support agency with resources that help parents with child support issues. Sometimes child support services are under the umbrella of the Office of the Attorney General or another government entity.

These agencies have child support programs that assist with parent location, establishing paternity, and filing for child support on behalf of children and parents who receive government benefits like public assistance. Agencies can order income withholding to ensure that parents meet their child support obligations. They can also help child support payers resolve enforcement actions when they can't pay.

One of their main functions is to help recipients enforce child support orders. Most states require that parents already have a child support case with an existing order before agency involvement.

Child Support and Bankruptcy

Child support debt is one of those few debts that cannot be discharged by bankruptcy. Parents make child support payments to help care for children. This is a public policy issue. The government does not want to allow parents to use bankruptcy to get out of providing support for their children.

Wage Garnishment and the Federal Government

Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act limits the amount of an employee's earnings that the employee may garnish. The law protects an employee from being fired for wage garnishment for only one debt. The Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment Standards Administration administers Title III. The Wage and Hour Division has no other authority with regard to garnishments. The Division states "The law protects everyone receiving personal earnings, i.e., wages, salaries, commissions, bonuses, or other income. This includes earnings from a pension or retirement program. Tips are generally not considered earnings for the purposes of the wage garnishment law. The law applies in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. territories and possessions."

Finding an Experienced Child Support Attorney

If you are a custodial parent looking to get child support and need advice on determining eligibility and how much you can receive, you may want to speak with a family law attorney. An effective lawyer can also help you reach an agreement with your spouse and modify child support orders. The bottom line is that courts will factor the essential financial and support needs of a child. Courts will reflect those needs in a child support order. However, if a child's needs change, or if there is a significant change in a parent's circumstances, you might have to file for a modification of existing child support. Contact a child support lawyer in your area.

Learn About Child Support Enforcement

  • Enforcement of Child Support FAQ – Provides answers to frequently asked questions about the enforcement of child support orders. This includes the enforcement of support when the non-custodial parent moves out of state.
  • Wage Garnishment FAQ – Provides answers to frequently asked questions about wage garnishment. Wage garnishment is the process of taking someone's wages without their consent with a court order.
  • Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement – Provides information and helpful resources from the Office of Child Support Enforcement (part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services). This includes links to state and tribal resources and contacts.
  • Handbook on Child Support Enforcement – This is a comprehensive guide to the enforcement of child support orders. It includes information about establishing paternity. It also includes information about working across borders to enforce support orders.
  • Unpaid Child Support and Getting a U.S. Passport – Provides information about passport eligibility for those with unpaid child support obligations. This includes how to restore eligibility after paying down a past-due balance (U.S. Department of State).

Child Support Enforcement Articles

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Some states allow you to set up child support with forms and court processes
  • You may need legal help to set up or modify child support arrangements
  • If there is conflict, an attorney can advise if the other parent’s actions are legal 

Get tailored advice about paying or receiving child support. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child support arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and make sure your children are provided for. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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