Collecting and Enforcing Back Child Support

If a non-custodial parent fails to pay court-ordered child support, the custodial parent can rest assured that federal and state laws mandate tough enforcement procedures. This may also include medical support for the children. 

Medical support includes health insurance and money payments—or both. Enforcement of spousal support is typically separate.

Those who are delinquent and owe back child support are sometimes called "deadbeat parents" or "deadbeat dads." Some states and counties even shame deadbeat parents by posting their pictures, names, and delinquent amounts online. Often, the title of state laws about past due child support uses the term “deadbeat parent."

However, "deadbeat parent" isn't a legal term. Those with overdue child support payments are “in arrears." And owed child support payments are “arrearages."

This article provides an overview of state and federal laws aimed at collecting and enforcing back child support payments. Read on for information about child support debt or child support arrears. Read also about child support enforcement agencies' efforts to help with enforcement actions.

Federal Child Support Laws

The federal government gives district attorneys and state attorneys general authority to collect back child support on behalf of custodial parents through the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984. They also have the authority to penalize non-paying parents.

The goal of enforcement is to encourage non-paying parents to pay their court-ordered child support. If a nudge — like denying a passport — doesn't do it, there will be stronger penalties. State attorneys can take any of the following enforcement measures against a delinquent parent:

  • Wage withholding or garnishment (the court orders an employer to practice income withholding, where they withhold payment and send it to the government to disperse)
  • Placing a lien against a home, property, or other real estate; if the owner sells the home or property, the lien must be paid before anything goes to the seller
  • Reporting the debtor to credit bureaus, which damages their credit rating
  • Freezing bank accounts so the delinquent parent can't access other money
  • Suspending a professional license or a driver's license (in some states)
  • Intercepting an income tax refund
  • Intercepting lottery winnings
  • Facing jail time; an obligor with past-due child support payments is in “contempt of court," and a judge can issue a contempt order

Since a jailed parent is unlikely to be able to make child support payments, jail is the last resort.

Interstate Child Support Collection

The federal Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) allows enforcement of court-issued child support orders in states where the parents and child previously resided.

The Act says that where the court issued the current child support order has continuing jurisdiction, no matter where the child lives now. The new court must defer to the old child support order. If there will be a modification of child support, it must comply with the laws of the original state.

A custodial parent may have an order mailed to an out-of-state court for assistance in enforcing the order. A parent also can have an order mailed to an employer in another state if there will be wage garnishment.

See the U.S. Department of Health & Human Service's Handbook on Child Support Enforcement for more information about collecting unpaid child support across state lines.

Enforcing Back Child Support: Procedures

States handle the process of enforcing back child support orders, but the procedures are generally quite similar among all states. Every state has a child support services office that helps with child support enforcement. The child support services agency's role is to find and contact individuals with outstanding child support payments. They can use various methods to try to collect child support from the obligor. See State and Tribal Child Support Agency Contacts (DHHS) for information about your state or jurisdiction.

For example, according to New York's Division of Child Support Enforcement, before any administrative enforcement procedure begins, a delinquent non-custodial parent is sent a notice explaining the child support enforcement process. This will include a time frame for payment and detailed instructions for how to comply.

Depending on the amount of child support owed, or the length of time past due, the state may:

  • Garnish wages
  • Intercept unemployment insurance
  • Suspend a driver's license
  • Deny a passport
  • Deny or suspend professional or occupational licenses

Note: This is not a complete list. If these administrative penalties fail, probation or jail time could result.

If the Non-Custodial Parent Cannot Pay

While a non-paying parent does face the possibility of jail time, no one is jailed for lack of means to pay. A non-custodial parent who is unable to pay the full amount of child support must file a motion with the court requesting a modification of child support. Support going forward can change to reflect the parent's current financial situation.

If you fail to request a modification of child support and just don't pay, the other parent can take you to court. The judge will issue an order regarding the arrearage amount you owe. This will include how you will pay as well as any other penalties for your failure to pay the child support as the court has ordered.

Unfortunately for a debt-burdened parent, back child support is on the short list of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. This means that the paying parent can't use bankruptcy to avoid their child support obligation. You're also subject to credit reporting. The law mandates credit reporting agencies to include information about overdue child support in credit reports.

Need Help Enforcing Back Child Support? Contact a Lawyer Today

Most parents want to support their children both financially and emotionally. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen. If you have a court order for child support and your co-parent isn't paying, you can get assistance. Let a family law attorney familiar with the enforcement and collection of child support help you with your child support case. Reach out to an attorney near you today to learn more.

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  • 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 

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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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