One parent's failure to pay court-ordered child support can result in financial struggles for the other parent—and for the child—who depends on the payments. Fortunately, parents have a legal right to help from law enforcement or other government officials when it comes to collecting past-due child support.
The first step in collecting child support from the "obligor" (the parent who's supposed to pay) is figuring out where to go for assistance. You can't enforce a child support order on your own—you must go through the proper legal channels.
The exact government agency or law enforcement department you'll need to contact to enforce your child support order(s) and collect past-due support depends on the laws where you live. In most areas, orders are enforced by the local department of child support services. (You can get more information about how child support is enforced where you live by contacting your state's child support agency.)
Child support agencies have many tools for enforcing child support. Here's a breakdown of some of the most common methods these agencies use when attempting to collect past-due child support.
By law, all child support orders include the enforcement tool of immediate income withholding, which is sometimes called "wage garnishment" or "income assignment." The state can order the obligor's employer to deduct the amount owed in child support from the obligor's paycheck and send it to the local child support office or directly to the custodial parent. Employers are required to deduct the payment from the obligor's paycheck just like any other payroll deduction (such as income tax or social security).
This method is very effective when the obligor has a regular job. However, income withholding often isn't the best enforcement method when the obligor parent changes jobs often, is self-employed, or is unemployed—income withholding requires that the obligor has a steady, predictable paycheck that an employer can draw funds from.
State child support agencies can also 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 can report parents who fail to pay child support to the federal Treasury Department. The Treasury Department can then intercept (take) refund payments for federal tax returns and other government payments (such as the coronavirus stimulus payment) and apply the money toward overdue child support.
Sometimes a parent who owes child support receives a refund based on a joint tax return—perhaps because they have remarried and filed a joint tax return with the new spouse. In most states, the parent who's owed support can collect only from the portion of the return that is based on the obligor's income. Note, though, 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 can withhold money only from the portion of the return that is based on the obligor's income if the obligor has remarried and is filing a joint tax return. (Check out IRS Publication 555 (03/2020), Community Property, for more information.)
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 can file the lien; in others, only a child support agency can 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. Sometimes, a lien might even give its holder 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.
Another option for a child support enforcement agency is to "attach" or seize property of the obligor to cover the unpaid child support. In that situation, the obligor parent 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.
State child support agencies have the power to freeze accounts that an obligor has at 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 can seize (withdraw) the amount owed from the obligor's account and send it directly to the child support agency.
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. State child support agencies also have the power to order that the state withhold, suspend, or even revoke the professional license—such as a medical, legal, cosmetic, or real estate broker license—of a parent who owes child support.
For obligors who are sincerely attempting to earn money to pay back child support, losing a driver's or business license might actually make it harder for the custodial parent to collect. After all, that license is usually critical to the person's ability to make money. For other obligors, though, losing a driver's license or a professional license is a powerful incentive to pay the amount due.
Typical income isn't the only kind of money that state agencies can withhold to cover unpaid child support (see #1 above). The state agency can also order that payments be withheld from all of the following:
When none of these enforcement methods work, the state child support agency can take the case to court. A judge can then find the obligor in contempt of court, which might result in fines or even jail time.
The Uniform Interstate Family Support Act allows parents to pursue collection processes across state lines, though the specifics of the laws that states have adopted according to the Act can differ. But long story short, parents who are owed child support aren't stopped from getting it just because the other parent lives in another state.
And if an obligor who owes more than $2,500 in child support is in another country, the U.S. Department of State can refuse to issue or renew the obligor's passport. Sometimes, the child support agency can attempt to get a federal warrant, which gives the Department of State the power to revoke the passport of and arrest the obligor when the obligor attempts to re-enter the United States.
"Retroactive child support" and "arrears" describe kinds of child support that an obligor can owe. The difference between the two is important to understand when trying to collect.
Retroactive child support is the amount of support an obligor owes before the court issues a support order. In many states, the court will hold the owing parent responsible for paying child support beginning on the date that a request for a child support order was made.
Because it can take weeks or months before the judge issues a final child support order, allowing retroactive support makes sure that the period of time between the request and the order is accounted for. With retroactive child support, any delays in the child support process don't affect the amount of child support.
Once a child support order is in place, the obligor parent must pay the full amount of support ordered each month or risk being in "arrears." Child support arrears—also known as "back" child support—is the difference between what a parent is ordered to pay and what the parent has actually paid. Child support arrears can begin to add up only after a court has issued a child support order. In most states, child support arrears can accrue interest at a 10% or higher annual rate.
Courts don't differentiate between a large amount of arrears and a small amount, and once any amount of arrears accumulates, the custodial parent can seek enforcement of the child support order.
Not every parent's failure to pay child support is intentional. In many cases of child support arrears, parents have legitimate reasons for being unable to work, such as a physical or mental disability.
In cases where a parent doesn't have income, the court must be flexible with its child support guidelines and adjust the order to an amount that's reasonable under the circumstances. When a parent requests an amount that's different than the state's calculations, the court must provide a written explanation for the reasons why the judge approved or denied the request.
Adjustments to an order aren't always permanent, and the court can review your case any time necessary. For example, if the obligor gets a new source of income or employment, you can ask the court to review the order. Although every state's modification process is different, most states require the requesting parent to prove that the current order is no longer appropriate.
If you're looking to modify child support, you might want to get help from a lawyer. (See below for information on finding legal help.)
While it's true that noncustodial parents must financially support their children, a custodial parent can't deny custody or parenting time for nonpayment of support.
If a custodial parent denies visitation to an obligor parent, the obligor can file a motion (request) in court to enforce the custody order. Although the court will likely enforce the existing custody order, the judge might also use the hearing as an opportunity to address the obligor's failure to pay support.
This situation is another where a parent might benefit from the help of a family law attorney.
For a parent looking for enforcement of a child support order, the cost of obtaining professional help might be a concern. Fortunately, the costs of working with your state's child support enforcement services are minimal. There might be an application fee (usually around $20), and, as of 2021, if you receive at least $550 in child support each year, there is a federally required annual service fee of $35. You might be able to request a waiver of these fees if you can't afford them.
Although child support enforcement is almost always handled by a state agency, if you think you might need to hire a lawyer, you can contact an experienced family law attorney for help. Many attorneys offer one free initial consultation, which will give you an idea of how much the attorney will charge to represent you. And even if you have to pay for a consultation, it might provide you with enough information to proceed on your own.
If you can't afford attorneys' fees, you might try contacting your state or county bar association to determine if it has a list of attorneys who offer pro-bono (free) representation. Also, low-income families might qualify for free or low-cost legal help from a legal aid organization.