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.
Those who are delinquent and owe back child support are sometimes called "deadbeat parents" or "deadbeat dads." Some states and counties shame deadbeat parents by posting their pictures, names, and delinquent amounts online. Often the term deadbeat parent is used in the title of state laws about delinquent child support.
"Deadbeat parent" isn't a legal term. Those who are delinquent with their child support payments are said to be "in arrears." And child support that is owed is called "arrearages."
This article provides an overview of state and federal laws aimed at collecting and enforcing back child support payments.
Federal Child Support Laws
The Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984 gives districts attorneys and state attorneys general the authority to collect back child support on behalf of custodial parents. 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, then stronger penalties will be applied. State attorneys can take any of the following enforcement measures against a delinquent parent:
- Wage garnishment (the court orders an employer to withhold payment and sends it to the government to disperse)
- Placing a lien against a home or property. If the home or property is sold, the lien must be paid first 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
- Suspension of a professional license or a driver's license (in some states)
- A judge can issue a contempt order and the parent could face jail time
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 child support orders issued by courts in states where the parents and child previously resided.
The Act says that the court where the original child support order was issued has continuing jurisdiction, no matter where the child lives now. The new court must defer to the old child support order. If a modification of child support is going to be made, 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. And a parent can have an order mailed to an employer in another state if wages are going to be garnished.
See the DHHS's Handbook on Child Support Enforcement for more information about collecting unpaid child support across state lines.
Enforcing Back Child Support: Procedures
The process of enforcing back child support orders is handled at the state level, but the procedures are generally quite similar among all states. 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 is begun, a delinquent non-custodial parent is sent a notice explaining the child support enforcement process, including 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, or deny a passport. (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 make full payments must file a motion with the court requesting a modification of child support. Support going forward can be changed 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 and the judge will issue a default judgment of delinquency.
Unfortunately for a debt-burdened parent, back child support is on the short list of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy.
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