Collecting Unpaid Child Support

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Collecting Unpaid Child Support

Non-payment of child support is a significant problem in the United States. According to the Federal Office of Child Support, in 2003, $96 billion in accumulated unpaid support was due to children in the United States and 68 percent of child support cases were in arrears. An overwhelming majority of children, particularly minorities, living in single-parent homes where child support is not paid live in poverty.  There are, however, numerous options available to collect unpaid child support.

Child Support Wage Deductions

Beginning in 1994, all new child support orders were required to provide for an automatic deduction from the obligor's wages. The wage deduction takes effect immediately unless the parties have agreed otherwise or unless a court waives immediate deductions from wages.  Wage withholding can be used to collect current support as well as past-due support.

There are, however, limits to wage deduction.  Wage deduction orders are effective in collecting support only if the parent is regularly employed and does not change jobs frequently. If the parent loses a job, there is, of course, no wage from which to make a deduction. If the parent changes jobs, the new employer must be served with a deduction notice before wages are withheld.  If a parent is self-employed, the parent is still obliged to send payments, but the person to whom support is due cannot look to an independent employer to make sure that payments are sent on time. 

Intercepting Tax Refunds for Child Support

The state also can intercept federal and state tax refunds to pay child support. This is a useful remedy if the obligor-parent has a sizeable refund due. However, the interception of tax refunds is usually only helpful for one year.  Once an obligor-parent has had a substantial tax refund seized, that parent often adjusts deductions of taxes from wages so that refunds in future years will be minimal.  If the obligor filed a joint income tax return with a new spouse, the new spouse can show the enforcement authorities the portion of the income tax refund that belongs to him or her so that the spouse's portion of the refund will not be intercepted.  

Criminal Penalties for Unpaid Child Support

States can hold parents in contempt of court for failing to pay child support.  A finding of contempt of court means that the person charged with contempt has willfully not done something that he or she has been ordered to do by the court.  A finding of contempt of court can result in a fine, a jail term, or both. If the parent cannot pay support for a good reason, such as loss of a job without fault of the parent, a court will not find the parent in contempt, but the obligation to pay support continues. 

License Suspension for Unpaid Child Support

Many states suspend an individual's licenses if that individual has significant arrearages (unpaid child support) or does not consistently pay support. For example, drivers licenses, business licenses, or contractors licenses can all be suspended.  This authority does not extend to professionals who receive licenses through non-governmental agencies.  

Should I Consult An Attorney About Unpaid Child Support?

Collecting child support is a difficult and complicated process.  If you are owed unpaid child support, a family law attorney can help you collect what is owed to you and your child.  If you owe child support, an attorney can help explain the law and protect your rights.

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Last Modified: 11-14-2013 12:01 PM PST

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