Enforcing Child Support Orders: Dealing With a Deadbeat Parent

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In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, parents that are divorced (or separated if they were never married) have an ongoing legal obligation to support their children. Sadly, too many kids grow up without the financial support they need when parents fail to pay court-ordered child support.

Now more than ever, it’s becoming harder for deadbeat parents to skip out on child support. Strict laws have been enacted to establish and enforce child support orders. And federal, state and local agencies have powerful child-support collection tools at their disposal.

Establishing Child Support

You must first get a court order to establish child support - there are several ways to do this. First, you and your child’s other parent can agree on an appropriate amount (usually set by your state’s guidelines) for support. A judge must approve your agreement and turn it into an official court order.

If you and your child’s other parent can’t agree, you’ll have to ask a Judge or local agency to set the amount. You can hire an experienced attorney in your area to file a request for a child support order.

If you can’t afford an attorney, don’t give up hope. Your state or local child support service office (referred to as the “Department of Child Support Services” or the “Office of Child Support Services”) can help parents establish, enforce, collect and modify child support orders.

These government child support service offices don’t represent either parent, but instead act on behalf of the state to make sure children receive the financial support they need. Local offices can also establish paternity (if necessary), obtain medical support orders, locate deadbeat parents, and find assets from which child support can be paid. The “Getting Help” section below includes information on how to contact your local child support services office.

Enforcing Child Support

Once established, a child support order must be obeyed. If not, custodial parents may ask an attorney or their local Office of Child Support Services (OCSS) (also called the Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) in some states) for help. A delinquent parent may be subject to any, or all, of the following enforcement tools:

  • Wage Deductions – the custodial parent, his or her attorney, or OCSS can request an income withholding order or wage assignment. With a wage deduction, child support is taken directly out of the non-custodial (paying) parent’s wages.
  • Federal Income Tax Intercepts – the state can intercept a large tax refund to cover late or missing child support payments.
  • License Suspensions and Revocations – a delinquent parent’s driver’s license(s) and/or professional license(s) may be revoked.
  • Passport Restrictions – a parent that fails to pay child support may be prevented from renewing his or her passport (and therefore prevented from leaving the country).
  • Contempt of Court – this is a legal order that may result in a fine or jail time for the parent who failed to make court-ordered support payments. However, the custodial parent (or his or her attorney) must go to court to obtain this order from a judge.

Federal Prosecution of Deadbeat Parents

The U.S. Office of the Inspector General (OIG) can intervene in child-support cases where the non-custodial (paying) parent lives in a state other than where the child lives, and:

  • refuses to pay child support for over 1 year
  • where the amount owing is more than $5000, or
  • where the non-custodial parent travels to another state or country to avoid paying child support.

The punishment include fines and up to 6 months in prison (or both) for a first offense. For a second offense, or where child support hasn’t been paid for more than 2 years, or the amount owing is more than $10,000, the punishment is a fine of up to $250,000 or 2 years in prison, or both. 

Some of the most notorious deadbeat parents are also added to OIG’s Most Wanted Deadbeats list online. Click here for more on the OIG’s child support enforcement division and here for the Status of OIG’s Deadbeats.

“Project Save Our Children” (PSOC) is a multiagency task force dedicated to investigating and prosecuting the worst child support cases and deadbeat parents. Its members are from the Administration for Children and Families, the Office of Child Support Enforcement, OIG Special Agents, the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Department of Justice. PSOC will identify, investigate and prosecute the most serious child support offenders who meet the criteria for Federal Prosecution under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Acts.

Getting Help

You can talk to an experienced family law attorney for help enforcing your child support order.

If you can't afford an attorney, contact your local OCSS to see if they can help collect child support using one of the enforcement methods mentioned above.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Child Support Enforcement website has lots of useful information about child support and an OCSS search tool that covers offices in all 50 states and D.C..

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