Enforcing Child Support: FAQs

Parents have a legal obligation to provide financial support to their minor children. This includes medical support, including health care and health insurance. The obligation ends when a child turns 18. The obligation may last until 19 if the child is a full-time high school student.

Typically, a court will order a non-custodial parent to pay child support. But a parent may not make child support payments despite a court order to do so. In that case, the other parent, caregiver, or guardian may need to take further action.

But how do you enforce a child support order? Below are answers to some common questions about what you can do.

Note that while the parent paying child support is typically the non-custodial parent, this is not always the case. One parent may have to pay support when the parents share joint legal custody.

Frequently Asked Questions

My ex won't pay court-ordered child support. What can I do?

The Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984 gives you some options. The act allows the government to help you collect court-ordered child support from a parent who isn't paying.

Typically, the government orders the delinquent parent to set up a payment arrangement. If the delinquent parent continues not to pay, the government can impose other consequences, such as:

  • Wage garnishment
  • Property seizure (Freezing bank accounts, placing a lien against a home, property, or other real estate)
  • Suspension of an occupational license
  • Suspension of a business license
  • Revocation of their driver's license
  • Jail time in extreme cases

The government can also report the delinquent parent to the IRS. Federal law allows the IRS to then make a lump sum payment from the delinquent parent's income tax refund. The government may also be able to intercept state tax refunds. Check your state for this information.

Furthermore, anyone who owes more than $2,500 in child support is ineligible for a U.S. passport.

As mentioned, in extreme cases, the court can hold a non-paying parent in contempt of court for failing to follow a court order. Contempt of court could result in a jail term. But judges only sometimes resort to this option. The main goal of ordering child support is to help the child. Sending a delinquent parent to jail can frustrate that goal since they can't earn money while in prison.

Can a different state enforce child support if my ex moves out of state?

Yes. The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) can help you. UIFSA has procedures for you to enforce child support on a parent who lives in another state. Here are some enforcement action options:

  • Ask your state court to enforce the child support order if it still has personal jurisdiction over them
  • Ask your state court to forward the order to the state where the delinquent parent lives
  • File a child support enforcement request with the delinquent parent's state
  • Ask the delinquent parent's employer to garnish their pay
  • Contact your state child support agency for additional information

Two other acts also penalize deadbeat parents. The Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 makes it a federal crime to refuse to pay child support to a parent living in another state. Also, the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998 makes it a felony not to pay child support to a parent in another state. Child support services agencies can work together across state lines.

If you can't find the delinquent parent, there are legal procedures that can help you locate the parent and enforce the child support order.

Can the court order my ex to pay past-due support?

Yes. Courts are very strict about enforcing child support. An "arrearage" is the overdue amount when a parent falls behind on payments. The delinquent parent is "in arrears."

If a parent finds themselves in arrears, they can ask a judge to reduce child support payments. But a judge will only reduce future payments. So, the delinquent parent must pay the arrearage in full.

Either parent can ask the court to increase or decrease the child support amount under certain circumstances. Most courts will require a "substantial change" in circumstances that justifies changing the amount of child support.

If I lose my job, can a court relieve me of my child support obligations?

As mentioned, a court won't excuse overdue child support payments. But, if you lose your job, you should petition the court to reduce your child support obligations.

The state uses child support guidelines to determine the child support amount. Your income is a variable in the formula for calculating your support payment. So, the court may reduce your payment if you lose your job.

Remember, unless the court lowers it, you're responsible for paying the amount the court originally ordered.

Can I discharge my child support arrears if I file for bankruptcy?

No. There's a public policy in favor of parents supporting their children. So, child support debt is one of the few debts that bankruptcy can't discharge. The paying parent is subject to credit reporting. A credit reporting agency must report overdue child support information.

My ex and I got divorced over a year ago. If I file for child support now, can I collect for the past year?

Generally, no. Child support typically begins on the day you request it from the court. So, be sure to file for child support as soon as possible. Often, you can file for child support when you separate from your ex. This is also when you deal with divorce issues like alimony/spousal support.

Judges in some states can sometimes order child support to begin from an earlier date. This way, you could get the full amount from the past year. It often depends on the child's age. You should seek professional advice from someone familiar with your state laws.

My spouse manages all our finances, but they rarely give me enough money for groceries and clothes for our children. Can I get child support?

Probably not, unless you don't live with your spouse. Courts don't like interfering with matters of family lifestyle. But the court will intervene if it's in the child's best interests. For example, to protect the child from abuse or neglect.

Be aware that if your spouse is not providing basic needs, the court may take custody of your child instead of ordering child support.

The government claims I'm thousands of dollars in arrears. But I've been making payments to the other parent. What should I do?

There are ways to avoid this predicament. Generally, you can make a child support payment to the court clerk or send it to the other parent. But the court order often does not specify which. It only includes the amount you owe.

It's a good idea to ask the court to include payment instructions in the order. There are many disbursement options for payments. Many child support offices provide debit cards or electronic payment cards to the custodial parent.

Alternatively, you can agree with the other parent on how you will make the payments. Make sure to put the agreement in writing.

Don't pay in cash. Remember that you bear the burden of proving payment. You must prove otherwise if the other parent claims you are in arrears. So, no matter who you're paying, always get a receipt.

Good evidence to show you made payment if you don't have a receipt includes the following:

  • Witnesses
  • Bank records showing direct deposit to the custodial parent
  • Other letters or documents that show the parent received the payments

I gained joint legal custody of my child. Will this affect my child support obligations?

Generally, no. Both parents can decide on the child's behalf in joint legal custody. But it doesn't affect financial obligations, so it does not impact child support.

Even in joint physical custody, the higher-income parent has to pay child support to the lower-income parent in most cases. Sometimes with split custody, it's confusing as to which parent is non-custodial. How much time each parent spends with the child determines the amount. The specifics of how this sliding scale works vary by state.

Do I still have to pay child support if my ex won't let me visit my children?

Yes. Don't confuse child support obligations with custody and visitation. While these issues are all family court issues. They are separate legal issues. So, even if the other parent doesn't honor your visitation rights, you still must pay child support. You'll need to petition the court to enforce your visitation rights.

Get Help Enforcing Your Child Support Orders: Talk to an Attorney

You have options if your ex doesn't comply with child support orders. Get sound legal advice about your child support case from an experienced legal professional. Contact a family law attorney to learn more about how you can enforce a child support order.

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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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