When two parents end their relationship, they face a difficult problem. On the one hand, they have to move on and forge a new, independent life. On the other hand, they'll be tied together for the rest of their lives by virtue of the children they share. All too often, this dual existence prompts hard feelings between exes who would just as soon sever all ties. Nowhere is this seen more often than the realm of child support, where one parent invariably feels the amount is too low while the other thinks it's much too high. Sometimes the turmoil becomes so great that child support doesn't get paid at all.
This article will explain how child support orders are enforced in the State of Massachusetts. If you have any questions about child support enforcement after you read this article, you should contact a family law attorney for advice.
Child Support in Massachusetts
In Massachusetts, child support includes monetary support (for basics like food, shelter and clothing) and health care, including insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. For purposes of this article, the parent who receives child support is known as the “receiving parent,” while the parent who has to pay is called “the paying parent.”
Whether you’re divorcing or you’ve never been married, when your relationship ends you need to get an official child support order from a court, so that you can enforce and collect child support if the paying parent stops making payments in the future.
In Massachusetts, child support orders are determined according to each parent's available income and a mathematical formula known as the child support guidelines. For a detailed discussion of how child support is calculated, please see Child Support in Massachusetts by Teresa Wall-Cyb.
What Role Does the State of Massachusetts Play in Child Support Enforcement?
Within the Massachusetts Department of Revenue is an office called Child Support Enforcement (CSE). CSE was established to enforce state and federal laws about child support.
CSE performs a number of critical child support functions. It uses an administrative (non-judicial) process to:
- establish paternity of children born to unmarried couples
- establish and modify child and medical support obligations
- collect child support, and
- enforce child and medical support obligations.
CSE can apply enforcement measures when paying parents aren’t meeting their child support obligations. However, in urgent or complicated cases, parents might find it’s in their best interest to locate a private lawyer or legal aid attorney who can go to court and argue to a judge on their behalf. In some circumstances, this can be more effective than waiting for CSE to act.
What Happens if I Don’t Pay as Ordered?
CSE and family court judges have a set of powerful legal tools to collect payment from parents with past-due child support accounts (known as "arrearages"), including:
- CSE sends out an annual Notice of Child Support Delinquency to alert all parents who have arrearages of the total amount they owe, including penalties and interest. The notice includes a list of all enforcement tools CSE can potentially use to collect arrearages.
- All Massachusetts child support orders include a withholding provision, and CSE sends a withholding order to all employers who've hired paying parents. Employers also have to report any new hires and provide wage information, so that CSE can track income sources and parents who move from job to job.
- When paying parents owe arrearages, CSE will issue a withholding order to the parent's employer. The order will increase the existing withholding amount to 25% until all arrearages are paid.
- If a parent doesn't owe ongoing child support payments anymore (for example, because a child is no longer underage) but still owes arrearages from the past, CSE will levy (take) a portion of the parent's income until the amount is paid in full.
- CSE can set up liens on the houses, land, or other property (like cars and boats) of parents who have arrearages. These parents won't be able to sell the property, or transfer ownership, until the liens are removed and the arrearages paid off.
- CSE will match its records up with the records of banks and credit unions doing business inside and outside of Massachusetts. When CSE makes a match, it can levy the paying parent's bank accounts to collect on arrearages.
- CSE can intercept the paying parent's state and federal tax returns and lottery winnings and apply them to any arrearages.
- CSE will refer cases where the paying parent has arrearages in excess of $2500 to the U.S. State Department, which will automatically deny, revoke, or restrict passports.
- CSE can collect money from unemployment and worker's compensation benefits that would otherwise go to the paying parent.
- CSE can report parents with arrearages to the consumer credit bureaus, which will damage those parents' credit ratings.
- CSE works with insurance companies to match insurance payouts against paying parents. If a paying parent has arrearages, the insurance settlement will be used to pay off child support arrearages.
- Certain public pension payments can be intercepted by the CSE and applied to the paying parent's arrearages.
- CSE can suspend the paying parent's driver's license and motor vehicle registration.
If you’re a paying parent, make sure you keep up with your child support obligation. Don't fall into arrearages. If you think you might have a problem, contact CSE, a family lawyer, or a legal aid attorney for advice about changing your payments and paying off your arrearages. The worst thing you can do is let arrearages accumulate until CSE takes enforcement measures against you. Once that happens, it's a lot harder to repair the damage to your finances and your reputation.
On the other hand, if you're a receiving parent, it's important that you understand all the enforcement mechanisms that CSE can take against a parent who's failed to pay child support. Understanding the laws and the options will prepare you to contact CSE and ask them to take the appropriate action to ensure that your children are financially supported and have what they need to thrive.
Massachusetts General Law, Part II, Title III (Domestic Relations)
The Massachusetts Court System: Self-Help Center
Massachusetts Legal Help (child support topics and legal aid for qualifying individuals)
Massachusetts Department of Revenue, Child Support Enforcement
Massachusetts Child Support Enforcement Division