Child Support Enforcement in California

Learn how to enforce child support orders and collect overdue payments in California.

Most parents want to support their children, both financially and emotionally, whether they are married to one another or not. Some parents, however, refuse to pay child support for their children even when ordered to do so by a court. Each state has specific resources and remedies available to help custodial parents enforce child support orders and collect past due payments.

This article will explain how to enforce a child support order in California. If you have additional questions after reading this article, you should consult a local family law attorney for help.

Establishing Child Support in California

Before you can enforce child support, you must make sure to have court-ordered child support in place. If you and your child’s other parent have nothing more than an oral agreement regarding child support, you won’t be able to enforce that agreement in court. If you're able to agree on an amount for support, you must memorialize your agreement in writing and have it approved by a judge; if the court determines the amount is in your child’s best interests, a judge will issue a child support order based on your agreement.

If you and the other parent can’t agree, and you need to have child support established in your case, you will have to file an action for child support in your county superior court. You can do this in one of the following ways:

  • on your own, using the child support forms found on the California Courts’ website
  • hiring a private attorney to file a petition for child support on your behalf, or
  • asking your local child support agency to open a case and file for child support on your behalf. In California, the local child support agency is called the California Department of Child Support Services (DCSS). Check the DCSS website to find an office near you.

Enforcement of Child Support in California

Once child support has been established, there are several ways a court can enforce the child support order and help a custodial parent collect overdue payments.

Motion for Contempt

California courts can enforce a child support order by holding the delinquent parent in “contempt” of court. Being held in contempt means the judge believes you have willfully disobeyed a court order.

Contempt can be criminal or civil. If the delinquent parent is held in criminal contempt, the court can order him or her to pay fines or serve jail time.

A parent held in civil contempt may also be sent to jail, but can be released as soon as he or she pays a certain amount of the past due child support. A court can also order a combination of penalties for civil and criminal contempt.

The party seeking to enforce child support in court (called the “plaintiff”) must file a motion (written legal request) for contempt. The custodial parent that is supposed to receive child support, the county where the child lives (if the county has paid support for the child), or the local DCSS office can file the motion, unless the custodial parent has died, in which case the child, or someone acting on the child’s behalf, may file it.

In California, there is a statute of limitations (meaning a time limit) on bringing a motion for contempt related to non-payment of support. You have three years from the date a payment was due (but not paid) to file a contempt action against a delinquent parent. For example, if the other parent doesn’t pay child support for six years, you can only file contempt regarding the last three years’ worth of payments. If the noncustodial parent isn’t paying, be sure to file for contempt at least every three years to ensure you are eligible to receive all past due child support.

Additional Court Orders Aimed at Collecting Support

If you’ve filed for contempt against a delinquent parent for failure to pay child support, the court will hold a hearing. If the court believes that the delinquent parent willingly refused to pay, a judge has a number of penalties that he or she can order. After finding a delinquent parent in contempt, the judge can:

  • fine a delinquent parent up to $1,000 and sentence him or her to up to five days in jail, but generally, judges don’t fine parents, since that money could go towards past due child support
  • sentence a delinquent parent to community service up to 120 hours for a first or second contempt and up to 240 hours for a third contempt
  • order a delinquent parent to pay the custodial parent’s attorney’s fees and other costs associated with enforcing the child support order
  • order that a delinquent parent’s property be sold to pay child support
  • order that a lien be placed on a delinquent parent’s real property, like a house or land
  • order that a delinquent parent’s wages be withheld to pay child support
  • order that money for past due child support be garnished from a delinquent parent’s bank accounts, or
  • order that past due child support be paid from a delinquent parent’s pension plan, veteran’s disability benefits, community property owned by a delinquent parent’s spouse, Social Security disability benefits, unemployment compensation disability benefits, workers compensation, lottery winnings, and most other sources of income for a delinquent parent.

Some federal benefits may be exempt from garnishment, but for the most part, a court can order that any income a delinquent parent receives be taken away and given to a custodial parent for child support. If you have specific questions about whether a court can garnish certain benefits to pay for child support, contact a local family law attorney for advice.

You should know that if the delinquent parent doesn’t have the financial ability to make the child support payments, the court won’t hold him or her in contempt. However, parents that claim an inability to pay must prove this in court with evidence of their income and assets (or lack thereof).

Just because a child has reached 18 doesn’t mean the noncustodial paying parent is suddenly off the hook; if a parent is behind on child support, that money is still owed until it’s paid in full. You still need to file within three years of the time support is due.

If you are a custodial parent seeking to enforce support and collect overdue payments, you can bring your own motion for contempt or you can hire a private attorney to file for contempt on your behalf. You can also apply for child support services, including enforcement services, with your local DCSS. Find contact information for your local child support agency here.

Other Penalties for Nonpayment of Child Support in California

In California, there are other penalties for failing to pay child support. If a parent is more than 30 days behind on child support, the Department of Motor Vehicles may refuse to issue or renew his or her driver’s license. Delinquent parents may get a temporary license (valid for 150 days), but if they don’t get caught up on child support, the state won’t extend the temporary license or issue a permanent one. If a parent is behind by 120 days or more, the state will revoke the license altogether.

Finally, DCSS keeps a list of delinquent parents and reports them to credit reporting agencies, which may result in a negative credit rating.

If you have additional questions about enforcement of child support in California, you can click here to speak with a local family law attorney.

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