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Can I Sue for Child Support Enforcement?

Yes, you can sue for child support enforcement. Though state law varies, child support is secured in three steps:

  1. Establish paternity.
  2. Get a court order in a child support case.
  3. Enforce the order against the obligor.

Once secured, state and federal authorities enforce the order.

Past-due child support is in "arrears." A parent who fails to correct child support arrearages may face serious legal consequences for the unpaid child support owed. In extreme cases, criminal prosecution is an option.

After discussing child support enforcement at the state and federal levels, this article explores penalties a non-compliant parent may face.

National Child Support Enforcement

In the past, only the states handled child support enforcement. The inconsistency between the states led to confusion and let deadbeat parents slip through the cracks.

In 1975, Congress responded by requiring all states to manage their child support programs based on minimum federal standards. Because this law is in Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, cases handled through these programs are sometimes known as "IV-D cases."

Congress also created the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). This office works with state and tribal agencies to develop programs based on overarching guidelines. It also provides many helpful resources to parents and professionals trying to enforce court-ordered child support. These include a comprehensive handbook available directly to parents and a parent-locator service available by working with your local child support service.

Despite federal standards, child support laws still vary widely from state to state. So, a local family law attorney is a crucial ally in securing past-due child support payments.

National Child Support Statistics

Despite robust government programs, ensuring that minors get financial support from both parents is still an ongoing social problem. The Census Bureau reports that nearly 22 million children had a parent living outside their home in 2018. Thirty percent of these children lived in poverty (i.e., three times the rate of children who lived with both parents).

Sadly, mothers are disproportionately affected compared with fathers. In 2017, 44.7% of custodial mothers participated in at least one public assistance program compared with 26.2% of custodial fathers.

Interstate Child Support Enforcement

Often, problems arise when a child or parent moves out of state. All 50 states have adopted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) to make sure deadbeat parents don't evade their child support obligations by moving states. This law sets a baseline for establishing, modifying, and enforcing child support orders across state lines.

Before UIFSA, two states could each issue a support order in one case. This led to confusion and delay when enforcing child support obligations. UIFSA solved the problem by allowing only one "controlling order" to be active. Once one state issues a controlling order, another state's child support enforcement agency can register it. The new state can enforce the registered order against the non-custodial parent in the new state in the same manner as in the issuing state.

For more, see Child Support Enforcement Under UIFSA and How Do I Find a Parent for Child Support?

Penalties for Deadbeat Parents

Deadbeat parents may face several legal consequences for failure to follow a child support order.


Child support enforcement agencies have many tools to encourage or force parents to pay child support arrears. These include:

  1. License suspension. State child support agencies may suspend your driver's license for failure to pay child support. They may also suspend business, occupational, professional, and recreational (e.g., hunting and fishing) licenses.
  2. Passport denial. You can't get a U.S. passport if you owe $2,500 or more in child support. If you already have a passport, the government can restrict its use.
  3. Income withholding. A court may also order garnishment of a parent's wages by their employer. Federal law allows garnishment of up to 50% of a parent's income. This increases to 60% if the parent does not support another child or spouse.
  4. Tax refund offset. The Federal Tax Refund Offset Program allows the government to withhold a parent's tax refund. The funds are then sent to state agencies to offset child support debt.
  5. Child support lien. The government can place a lien on a parent's property. A lien is a legal claim held by a creditor against a debtor's property (e.g., cars or real estate). A lien can block the sale of the property until the child support debt gets paid. It may also affect the debtor's credit report.
  6. Seize property. Sometimes, the government can seize a parent's property directly, including funds in a bank account.


In extreme cases, intentional failure to pay child support can lead to jail time. There are three federal crimes associated with failure to pay child support:

  • If the amount past due for a child who lives in another state is (1) over one year late or (2) greater than $5,000, intentional failure to pay is punishable by a fine, up to six months in prison, or both.
  • If the amount past due for a child who lives in another state is (1) over two years late or (2) greater than $10,000, intentional failure to pay is punishable by a fine, up to two years in prison, or both.
  • Interstate or international travel to intentionally avoid paying back child support that is either (1) over one year late or (2) greater than $5,000 is punishable by a fine, up to two years in prison, or both.

Despite these laws, most child support prosecutions get handled at the state level. Child support arrearage must first get addressed at the state level before federal prosecution.

Intentional failure to pay child support is also a crime at the state level, ranging from low-level misdemeanors to felonies. Punishment may include fines (from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands) and jail time (from a few months to years). Factors include the amount of child support owed, how late payments are, and if the failure to pay is recurrent.

A Lawyer Can Help

The law places a special emphasis on the well-being of minors. The national child support enforcement system and criminal codes throughout the country reflect this.

Parents trying to enforce child support orders have many tools at their disposal. If you need help enforcing a child support order, an attorney experienced in child support matters can give you legal advice law and use these tools to your advantage in family court.

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