Child support refers to payments owed by one parent (referred to as the “non-custodial parent”) to another parent (usually referred to as the “custodial parent,” or parent who has primary custody of the child or children) for the cost of raising a child. They are past due when they have not been paid by the date they were due. Laws addressing past due child support usually only address payments that were ordered and enforceable by the court or included in a valid contract.

Support payments are usually due monthly. When the due date passes and payments owed accumulate, they are said to be past due. Legally, parents who are delinquent with their payments are said to be “in arrears.”

How Can I Collect Past Due Child Support Payments?

Federal and state law provide methods for collecting past due child support payments from the parent who owes them. Child support is a court order, therefore the custodial parents can ask for assistance from local law enforcement or government agencies to collect the past due payments. Once the parent is located, there are several ways to collect the past due support:

  • Wage garnishment
  • Placing a lien on the non-custodial parent’s property or real estate
  • Intercepting the non-custodial parent’s tax refund
  • Seize assets
  • Revoke or suspend a driver’s or professional license and make renewal contingent on paying the past due support
  • Intercept lottery or gambling winnings
  • Reporting the non-custodial parent to the credit bureaus
  • Publishing the names of non-custodial parents who owe past due support
  • Court order, which may result in jail time for contempt and/or fines

Courts are hesitant to take action that would limit a parent’s ability to pay the past due support, therefore jail time is usually reserved for parents who have the means to pay, but have chosen not to fulfill their obligations.

What is Retroactive Support?

Retroactive support specifically refers to payments for expenses incurred for the support and care of the child before a court enters an order for child support. When child support is addressed as part of a divorce or legal separation, retroactive support refers to support owed from the time the lawsuit was filed up until the order for child support was entered. The custodial parent should specifically ask for retroactive support.

As a general rule, a child support obligation starts when a child was born. Therefore a custodial parent can ask for retroactive support for things like medical bills for the birth of the child. This is more common when the child’s parents were not married when the child was born. In some states the court might award retroactive support for expenses incurred even before the child was born, such as pregnancy and birth-related medical bills.

Typically the custodial parent must ask the court for retroactive support within a certain period of time. For example, in North Carolina a parent has three years from the birth of the child to file a lawsuit for retroactive support for birth-related expenses. In Texas the maximum number of years a court will order retroactive support is four. In California the custodial parent can ask for retroactive support for the three years before applying for support with the court.

To collect retroactive support the custodial parent must be able to provide evidence of the past expenses, and also be able to show that the money spent was “reasonably necessary.” State law varies in terms of what kind of expenses qualify for retroactive support. It is important to know the law where you live.

How Can I Enforce Past Due Support Payments?

Law enforcement and government agencies are available to help parents pursue past due child support. Exactly which law enforcement department or government official you should contact will depend on your local and state laws. Every state has a child support enforcement agency that locates and pursues the non-custodial parent to enforce the support order and collect the past due payments.

Federal law requires that steps are taken to collect past due child support, but it is up to state and local agencies to initiate the collection process. Withholding wages is the most common tool for collecting past due support. The collection process is automated in most states, so when a past due amount reaches a certain threshold federal and state agencies are notified and then initiate collection via one or more of the methods for collecting past due support.

It is important to have a court ordered support agreement, or contract that has been filed with the court and turned into an order, so that if payments become past due your local child support enforcement agency can assist with collection as soon as possible.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Help with Past Due Support Payments?

A qualified family law or child support attorney can help you with the process of collecting past due child support. An experienced attorney can advise you of your rights when it comes to collecting support. and can represent you during court hearings and other proceedings. A knowledgeable attorney will know your state’s laws and how they impact child support enforcement.