Everywhere in the United States—including the 50 states, Washington, D.C., territories, and tribal nations—parents have a legal duty to support their children financially. The duty exists whether the parents are married, never married, separated, or divorced.
If your co-parent isn't meeting that support obligation, your first step will be get a court order establishing child support. Then, when you have an order in hand, you'll have federal and state tools available to enforce the order and collect the amounts owed.
The procedure for getting a child support order depends on your situation. Usually, the parent who isn't living with the child most of the time (the noncustodial parent, or "obligor") will owe child support to the custodial parent (the "recipient").
When a couple with children divorces, the court will issue a child support order as part of the final divorce decree. All states have detailed guidelines that judges use to determine how much the obligor will owe each month. Although parents can ask the judge to order a different amount than what the guidelines show, the judge will do so only if it's in the child's best interests.
If you and your co-parent never married, you'll still need to get a court order establishing child support. But in most states, you won't have to go to court. Instead, you'll apply through your local, state, or tribal child support agency (more about these agencies below). A child support order obtained through an agency has the same legal weight as one that you get as part of a divorce.
Government child support service offices don't represent either parent. Instead, they act on behalf of the state to make sure children receive the financial support they need. The agency will help you with all the legwork, such as establishing paternity (if necessary) and gathering financial information. The agency will then secure the child support order on your behalf.
In some states, the agencies may issue support orders through their own administrative process. In other states, the agencies will take care of getting the order from the court. Either way, if your co-parent doesn't pay support on time, the agency will help enforce the order.
Because parents usually are responsible for supporting their child financially from birth until the child reaches the age of majority, it's possible that an obligor could owe money for a period of time before a child support order was issued, as well as the amounts owed after that.
Retroactive child support is the amount a parent owes before the court (or agency) issued the support order. State laws vary on how far back in time a parent may owe retroactive child support.
Some states allow courts to reach back and calculate the support a parent should've paid for a certain number of years before the custodial parent applied for support. For example, in North Carolina, a custodial parent can seek retroactive child support as far back as three years. (N.C. Gen. Stat. §§ 1-52; 50-13.4 (2022).)
Other states limit awards of retroactive support to the date that the custodial parent applied for child support. For example, in Michigan, a custodial parent may seek retroactive support from the date of the application or petition. However, retroactive support could start further back if the obligor tried to prevent the custodial parent from seeking an order or otherwise tried to delay the process. (Mich. Comp. Laws § 552.452 (2022).)
Once a child support order is in place, the obligor parent must pay the full amount of ordered support each month or risk being in "arrears." Child support arrears—also known as arrearages or "back" child support—is the difference between what a parent is ordered to pay and what the parent has actually paid. Unlike retroactive child support, child support arrears begin to add up only after a court has issued a child support order.
More than half of the states charge interest on child support arrears. In some states, the amount of interest varies depending on market conditions, while in others interest accrues at a fixed rate. The National Conference of State Legislatures' website breaks down how and when interest accrues in all the states. Judges in many states may waive interest if it will help obligors fulfill their basic support obligations.
Courts don't differentiate between a large amount of arrears and a small amount. Once any amount of back support accumulates, the custodial parent may seek to have the order enforced.
It's important to note that you won't be able to enforce a child support order on your own. You'll need to seek enforcement through the courts or governmental agencies. (Learn more about the child support enforcement process in your state.)
You can hire a local family law attorney to help you navigate the enforcement process. But if the cost of using an attorney is a concern, the good news is that you can get help enforcing child support orders from your state or tribal child support agency at a very low cost—without the need for an attorney.
The Child Support Enforcement program (CSE) provides a framework under which states and the federal government work together to enforce child support orders and secure child support as a reliable source of income for custodial parents. The CSE is sometimes called the "IV-D" program—a reference to the section of the Social Security Act that created the program. The program is available in all states, as well as Washington, D.C., certain territories, and 60 tribal nations.
Under CSE, all of the states (and some territories and tribal nations) have an agency that's tasked with enforcing child support orders. The agencies go by different names (such as "Department of Child Support Services" or "Office of Child Support Services"), but they're generally referred to as "Child Support Services" (CSS).
You can look up your local office on the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement's website. (The Office of Child Support Enforcement is the federal agency that oversees the CSE.) Most local agencies process applications for enforcement online—look for a button or menu item labeled "apply now" or "apply for services."
CSS will help you with any steps you need to take in order to move forward with enforcement, such as locating an obligor. If you have even a little bit of identifying information, such as a full name, date of birth, last known address, or social security number, CSS can help you track down a delinquent obligor.
For most people applying for child support enforcement services, there will be a one-time application fee of $25. If CSS collects at least $550 per year on the applicant's behalf, there's an additional annual fee of $35.
Some families are required to enroll in the CSE but are not charged for enforcement services. These families include those who receive:
Child support agencies have many tools for enforcing child support orders. Here's a breakdown of some of the most common methods CSS uses when attempting to collect past-due child support.
All child support orders include the enforcement tool of immediate wage withholding (also called "wage deduction," "wage garnishment," and "income (or earnings) assignment"). The state can order the obligor's employer to deduct the child support amount from the obligor's paycheck. Employers must deduct the payment from the obligor's paycheck just like any other payroll deduction (such as income tax or social security). Depending on the order, the employer will send the payment to either the local child support office or the custodial parent.
Wage withholding is very effective when the obligor has a regular job with a steady, predictable paycheck. However, it often isn't the best enforcement method when the obligor changes jobs often, is self-employed, or is unemployed. When that's the case, other tools come into play.
Wages aren't the only income that state agencies can withhold to cover unpaid child support. CSS may also order that money be withheld from payments such as commission income, employment bonuses, and pension benefits.
State child support agencies can also participate in the Administrative Offset Program. This program allows interception of certain federal payments, such as pay to vendors who perform work for a government agency and federal retirement payments.
State child support agencies can report parents who haven't paid child support to federal and state tax agencies.
Under the federal Treasury Offset Program, state child support enforcement agencies may report parents who fail to pay child support to the federal Treasury Department. The Treasury Department may then withhold refund payments for federal tax returns and other government payments, and apply the money toward overdue child support.
Sometimes, parents who owe child support receive a refund based on a joint tax return—perhaps because they've remarried and filed a joint tax return with the new spouse. In most states, the parent who's owed support may collect only from the portion of the joint return that's based on the obligor's income. Note, however, that community property laws might affect whether a new spouse's share of the tax return can be applied toward the obligor's unpaid child support. (For more information about how tax offsets can be taken against tax returns where you live, and how you can make sure the IRS takes only the obligor's share of the tax return, see the IRS's instructions for Form 8379 (Injured Spouse Allocation).)
Every state that collects income tax is required to offset state income tax refunds when a parent owes child support. Similar to the situation with federal tax refunds, most states may withhold money only from the portion of the return that's based on the obligor's income if the obligor has remarried and is filing a joint return. (Check out IRS Publication 555 (03/2020), Community Property, for more information.)
One of the most effective ways of obtaining past-due child support payments is to have the state revoke or suspend an obligor's driver's license. CSS also has the power to order withholding, suspension, or even revocation of a delinquent parent's professional license (such as a medical, legal, cosmetic, or real estate broker license) or recreational license (such as a hunting or fishing license).
For obligors who are sincerely trying to earn money to pay back child support, losing a license to drive or practice a profession might actually make it harder to do that. After all, these types of licenses are usually critical to the person's ability to make money. CSS often won't use this penalty if it's not in the child's best interest to do so.
For other obligors, though, losing a driver's license or a professional or recreational license is a powerful incentive to pay the amount due.
If the obligor parent owns real estate or certain other types of property (like a car), child support payments can be enforced by placing a lien on the property. Every state has its own laws on who can file a child support lien. In some states, the parent who's owed money may file the lien; in others, only a child support agency may file one. The holder of a lien has a claim on the property, and the obligor usually can't sell the property without paying off the lien. In rare cases, the holder of a lien has the right to force a sale of the property to pay off the lien.
One of the downsides of a lien is that it doesn't lead to an immediate payment. The parent who's owed support usually has to wait until the obligor sells the property or is able to pay off the lien without a sale.
CSS has the power to freeze an obligor's accounts held by certain financial institutions (such as banks, credit unions, and insurance companies). When a child support agency freezes an obligor's bank or other financial account, the obligor can't use the account until the debt is paid off. In some states, after the account has been frozen for a period of time (such as 30 days), and the obligor still hasn't paid the debt, the financial institution may seize (withdraw) the amount owed from the obligor's account and send it directly to the child support agency.
Another option available to CSS is to "attach" or seize other property the obligor owns to cover the unpaid child support. In that situation, the obligor will have to either sell the item and apply the proceeds to unpaid child support, or transfer ownership of the item to the custodial parent.
When a parent owes at least $2,500 in child support, CSS can submit the parent's information to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). OCSE can then submit the parent's information to the Department of State, which can reject the parent's passport application. Sometimes, the child support agency can attempt to get a federal warrant that gives the Department of State the power to revoke an obligor's passport and arrest the parent when they try to re-enter the United States.
When none of these enforcement methods work, the custodial parent (on their own or with the help of an attorney) may take the obligor to court. After hearing the evidence, a judge may then find the obligor "in contempt of court"—in other words, guilty of ignoring the court order requiring payment of child support. A contempt can result in fines or even jail time.
If you're the custodial parent, you should consult with CSS before taking this drastic step. Many states won't allow you to pursue a contempt case until you've worked with CSS and attempted all other reasonable collection methods.
On top of all of these enforcement tools, CSS is required by federal law to report late child support to the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) every month. That means that anyone who's delinquent in paying child support will take a major hit to their credit score. Having a low credit score can make it difficult to obtain a loan (for a car or house, for example) or obtain credit.
For the vast majority of delinquent child support cases, state and local enforcement through CSS is effective. For particularly egregious cases, though, the federal government might get involved.
The U.S. Office of the Inspector General (OIG) can intervene in child-support cases where the noncustodial (paying) parent has refused to pay child support for over one year (or owes more than $5,000) and lives in a different state than the child or has traveled to another state or country to avoid paying support.
The punishment varies, depending on whether it's a first offense, whether the parent left the state to avoid paying, and the amount of time or dollar amount of unpaid support. (18 U.S.C. § 228 (2022).)
The OIG doesn't automatically investigate cases that meet the criteria for this federal crime. Instead, after a state or local agency refers the case to OIG, the Department of Justice will decide whether to prosecute the case at the federal level.
Some of the most notorious deadbeat parents are also added to OIG's Most Wanted Deadbeats list.
Given all the resources available to custodial parents when child support isn't being paid, it's often worth it to start by applying for help from your local CSS office. You can always decide to work with an attorney if something comes up that CSS can't handle, or if you feel overwhelmed by the process and need further help.