Child support is the monetary payments made to the parent that resides with the child, also known as the custodial parent, for the maintenance of the child. The payment is generally made by the non-custodial parent or the earning payment for the necessary child support. Child support can be considered “unlawful” when it is not legally required by that parent. 

This means that a parent is paying child support for another child, which they are not obligated to pay for. In order to avoid the unlawful child support orders, state and federal laws have created a somewhat uniform system to enforce and collect the payments from parents. 

What are the Methods for Enforcing Child Support Payments? 

The Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984 grants the authority to district attorneys and state attorneys generals to collect back child support on behalf of any custodial parents. This and other federal child support initiatives are operated and managed by the Office of Child Support Enforcement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

A parent’s failure to follow the orders regarding child support from a district attorney or state authority could subject the parents to penalties including imprisonment. However, since a jailed parent is unlikely to make regular payments, it is considered as the last resort and used more as a preventative measure. The essential goal is to encourage non-custodial parents to pay the ordered amount of child support. The enforcement typically starts with the termination of certain privileges and other restrictions. For instance, a parent owing more than $2,500 in support may be denied a passport until he or she can pay the remaining past due balance.

In adherence to the Act, state attorneys may take any of the following enforcement measures against a delinquent non-custodial parent:

  • Garnishment of wages; 
  • Liens against property or real estate; 
  • Reporting the debtor to credit bureaus; 
  • Freezing bank accounts; 
  • Suspension of professional or driver’s license;
  • Contempt order and; 
  • Jail time.

In addition, the federal Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) outlines matters of jurisdiction when more than one state is involved in a child support dispute. The purpose is to create a uniform system for reference for child support matters Specific parts of the act are as follows:

  • States must abide by and defer to child support orders entered by courts in the child’s home state; 
  • Continuing exclusive jurisdiction (CEJ) is granted to the place where the order was originally created and only the law of the state with CEJ may be applied to modification requests; 
  • A custodial parent may have an order mailed out to an out-of-state court for guidance in enforcing the order and; 
  • A custodial parent may have an order mailed out to the employer of the non-custodial parent (for wage garnishment). 

The process of enforcing back child support orders is managed at the state level, but the procedures are usually similar across all states. For instance, according to New York’s Division of Child Support Enforcement, a delinquent non-custodial parent in the state is sent a notice explaining the child support process, including a time frame for payment and detailed instructions for how to adhere to them. Furthermore, depending on the amount of child support owed, or the length of time past-due amounts have been accruing, the state may order some of the following actions:

  • Wage garnishment
  • Interception of unemployment insurance; driver’s license suspension; 
  • Passport denial and;  
  • Probation or jail time which is considered as the last resort. 

What Happens When the Parent Cannot Pay?

If for some reason you are unable to make your legally obligated child support payments, it is important to seek out a local attorney for further guidance on this issue. It is not advisable to delay making those payments because back child support is on the short list of debts that cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy. There are serious legal consequences for failing to make child support payments and it is important to act immediately to seek the help needed. 

A non-custodial parent who is unable to make full payments must act and file a formal motion requesting modification of child support, to reflect their current financial situation. Failure to file a motion could result in a default judgment of delinquency and additional costs. 

How to Locate a Parent to Enforce the Child Support Payments? 

Depending on your state’s laws, enforcement agencies methods may vary in locating the parent. In general, the best way to find an elusive noncustodial parent is to gather as much personally identifying information as possible. If the parent is a former spouse, it may be easier to locate the following information. This type of information may assist the state authorities or caseworkers to find an otherwise unresponsive parent:

  • Social Security Number; 
  • Names of the noncustodial parent’s friends, employers, coworkers, or family members who may have relevant information; 
  • Copy of the order for child support; 
  • Child’s birth certificate; 
  • Addresses of past and/or present workplaces or residences; 
  • Additionally, the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS) maintained by the Office of Child Support Enforcement (a division of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) helps state child support programs by collecting data from various sources and; 
  • State agencies use data compiled through the FPLS to establish paternity and locate unresponsive parents. 

Child support enforcement is managed at the state level, and often uses mechanisms such as wage garnishments and the withholding of state benefits to enforce the orders. But different states have various ways to assist the custodial parents find noncustodial parents who are failing to make the payments. 

One method is to advertise the names and pictures of parents, along with the amount owed, on billboards or websites. But while states have several different enforcement protocols, they are all meant as incentives and are not necessarily effective at locating a parent that went into hiding. 

Moreover, the states have jurisdiction and the resources to track down unresponsive parents who live in the same state as the custodial parents. However, it becomes difficult to enforce a child support order when the noncustodial parent crosses state lines and cannot be found, even if court orders are issued. While in theory,  the federal Full Faith and Credit for Child Support Orders Act requires states to enforce valid child support orders from other states, the actual enforcement is not always possible and creates  separate issues 

Often, the parents are able to elude authorities until they are stopped by police through perhaps a routine traffic stop, for instance and checked for outstanding warrants. Additionally, some delinquent noncustodial parents work for cash in order to avoid wage garnishment, regardless of which state they are in.

In practice, custodial parents who are unable to find an out-of-state unresponsive parent typically must either do the investigative work themselves or hire a private investigator (PI) in some cases. Some PIs are licensed to operate in more than one state and can be recoverable as attorney’s services. It is important to look up each jurisdiction ruling on this. 

When Do I Need to Hire a Family Lawyer? 

If you are paying child support for someone other than your own child, you may be considered making an unlawful child support payment. It is important to seek out an experienced child support lawyers to assist you and educate you on your legal options.