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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 normally secured in three steps: (1) establish paternity, (2) receive a court order, and (3) enforce the order. Once secured, a child support order can be enforced by state and federal authorities.

Past-due child support is said to be in “arrears." A parent who fails to correct child support arrearages may face serious legal consequences. 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, child support enforcement was left to the states. The inconsistency 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 found 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, as well as 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. Therefore, a local family law attorney can be a crucial ally in securing past due child support payments.

National Child Support Statistics

Despite robust government programs, ensuring that minors receive 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 that lived with both parents).

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

Interstate Child Support Enforcement

In many cases, problems arise when a child or parent moves out of state. To make sure deadbeat parents do not evade their child support obligations by moving states, all 50 states have adopted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA). 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 at a time. Once a controlling order is issued in one state, it may be registered with another state's child support enforcement agency. The registered order can then be enforced 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 comply with a child support order.


Child support enforcement agencies are equipped with 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. If you owe $2,500 or more in child support, you cannot receive a U.S. passport. If you already have a passport, its use can be restricted.
  3. Income Withholding. A court may also order that a parent's wages be garnished 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. A lien may be placed 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). The lien can block sales of the property until the child support debt is paid. It may also impact the debtor's credit report.
  6. Seize Property. In some cases, a parent's property may be seized 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 1 year late or (2) greater than $5,000, intentional failure to pay is punishable by a fine, up to 6 months in prison, or both.
  • If the amount past due for a child who lives in another state is (1) over 2 years late or (2) greater than $10,000, intentional failure to pay is punishable by a fine, up to 2 years in prison, or both.
  • Interstate or international travel to intentionally avoid paying back child support that is either (1) over 1 year late or (2) greater than $5,000 is punishable by a fine, up to 2 years in prison, or both.

Despite these laws, most child support prosecution is handled at the state level, and child support arrearage must first be addressed at the state level before federal prosecution may take place.

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. This is reflected in the national system of child support enforcement, as well as in criminal codes throughout the country.

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 help you figure out the law and use these tools to your advantage.

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