Child Support in Arrears after Divorce
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Understanding Child Support Obligations
If you are a parent in New Jersey who is divorced or whose relationship has ended, there are specific things you need to know about child support obligations. Understanding the basics of the law and court procedures will help both “obligor parents” (parents who must pay support) and those who are "obligee parents” (parents who receive support on behalf of their children) avoid child support arrearages, and ensure that their children receive the financial support they need to thrive.
Obligor parents must pay child support based on a number of factors, including the number of children the couple has, the percentage of time the children spend with each parent, and each parent's gross income. The amount of support is calculated according to the New Jersey child support guidelines.
For information on calculating child support, see Child Support in New Jersey by Susan Bishop.
Once a child support order is in place, the obligor parent typically pays support at least until the child turns 18 and is no longer in school. There are exceptions to this however, and in many New Jersey cases parents are ordered to continue paying support for children that are over 18.
What are Child Support Arrears?
When obligor parents stop making child support payments as ordered by a court, they begin to incur “child support arrearages.” Child support arrearages, also known as child support arrears, are the amount of unpaid child support due under a court order. In other words, it's an unsettled debt owed by one parent to another for the cost of care for their children.
What Happens If the Obligor Doesn't Pay?
When the obligor stops paying, there's an obvious impact on the children and the obligee parent, who must continue to care for the children with less money. One of two things might happen when child support isn’t paid: the obligee parent will notify the Probation Child Support Enforcement (PCSE) Unit and ask for an enforcement hearing, or PCSE will take action on its own.
Stage 1: PCSE Action
The PCSE monitors child support orders in New Jersey and takes action to enforce child support orders when it finds out that an obligor parent has fallen behind. The PCSE will intervene regardless of whether it learns about the problem through its own routine investigations or through complaints from an obligee parent. At this stage, the PCSE can intercept the obligor parent's income or assets through withholding and garnishment as follows:
- Automatic deductions. State and federal law mandate that child support be automatically deducted from an obligor parent’s wages and earnings through the New Jersey Family Support Payment Center (NJFSPC). If an obligor falls behind, arrearages can also be deducted from state and federal tax refunds and lottery winnings.
- Claims against assets. Even personal injury lawsuit and worker's compensation winnings aren't off the table—the Child Support Lien Network allows obligee parents to lodge a claim and take all or part of these proceeds from the obligor.
- Freezing and seizing bank accounts. If an obligor has not paid child support in 35 days and has total arrears equal to or greater than the sum of a three-month obligation, federal law allows the PCSE to freeze the obligor's bank accounts and seize the money to pay the arrearage.
Stage 2: In Court (Enforcement Hearing)
The PCSE also has the option to schedule an enforcement hearing before a judge in the family division of superior court in the county where the original support order was issued. These hearings are very common. Again, the PCSE can schedule a hearing at the obligee's request or based on its own investigation.
The obligor, obligee, and the PCSE will each have the opportunity to present their case at the enforcement hearing. Parents may bring their own attorneys or they can represent themselves. The PCSE doesn't represent either parent. It sends its own representative to the hearing to present facts. Both parents should be prepared to provide the judge with current information about their income, assets, and possible future income. That information will help the judge make a decision.
If you’re the obligor parent who is in arrears on child support, you must appear at the enforcement hearing. If obligors don't show up, the judge can issue both a bench warrant for their immediate arrest and a "default" child support order (a court order based on the input of only one side).
The court may also find the obligor parent is in "contempt of court" for failure to pay support as ordered. This means the court has decided that the obligor is voluntarily disobeying the original child support order. Once an obligor is found to be in contempt, a judge can issue any of the sanctions that were originally open to the PCSE in Stage 1, including garnishment and withholding. You should also know that if a judge finds you in contempt, there may be more severe consequences because the judge can order any or all of the following:
- Credit reporting. If an obligor parent owes $1000 or more, the State of New Jersey may report the debt and judgment to credit bureaus. An obligor's credit score may fall and the ability to secure credit or transfer property can be affected.
- License suspension. Obligors who haven't paid child support in six months, or who have had a bench warrant issued for their arrest, might have their driver's licenses suspended until they’re current on their obligation. Professional and occupational licenses are also at risk.
- Jail time. Superior court judges can issue bench warrants against obligors who fail to appear for scheduled hearings or pay their obligations. This means delinquent obligors may be arrested, taken to jail, and held there until they comply with previous court orders. Obligors who have bench warrants issued for their arrest will automatically have their driver's licenses suspended.
- Passport restrictions. A new passport or passport renewal will not be issued to an obligor who owes more than $2500 in child support arrears.
The court will issue another child support order which contains requirements that the obligor parent must meet, or else go to jail. The order will include a "judgment" against the obligor (a legal claim for money in favor of the obligee). The clerk of court will record the judgment, which must be paid within a certain amount of time. The enforcement order may include other requirements such as compelling an unemployed obligor to search for a job.
What Can Obligor Parents Do to Help Themselves?
Remain current on child support
It sounds like a no-brainer, but this is the most important thing to do. Stay up-to-date on payments, and if you're having problems keeping up, contact an attorney and stay in touch with the PCSE so they don't initiate proceedings against you.
Pay child support arrears
If you’ve let your child support payments accrue and you've been held in contempt of court, you may be able to “purge” or erase the contempt record by satisfying all of the requirements in the order the judge issues after the enforcement hearing.
Even if you owe a very large amount in arrearages, you may be able to purge the contempt by repaying a percentage of the total each month until the arrearage is paid in full. But, you’ll still need to remain current on additional payments. This arrangement requires court approval.
Request a modification or reduction in child support
If you’ve experienced a substantial change in your financial circumstances, such as an involuntary job loss or decrease in income, you should not just stop paying child support. Instead, ask the court to modify (change) your support obligation.
It's important to know that in New Jersey, you can’t ask for a modification during an enforcement hearing. You need to file paperwork, and appear at a separate court proceeding called a “modification hearing.” Be prepared to submit documents regarding your financial situation, and explain why your child support payments should be reduced. If the court finds there is a legitimate reason to reduce support, it may adjust the previous order.
The State of New Jersey Official Child Support Website
The State of New Jersey Court System Child Support Enforcement Website
The State of New Jersey Parent Link: Child Support & Child Care Assistance Resource Page