Enforcing Child Support Payments

A parent’s legal obligation to support his or her child financially starts when the child is born. If the parents later get divorced, one parent will likely be making child support payments to the other. In some cases, the parent paying child support may lose a job or have other financial problems and fall behind in making payments, or stop paying court ordered child support entirely. Failing to pay child support is against the law, and there are many tools available to collect unpaid child support.

When the parent who owes child support does not make a payment, or makes less than the full payment, these unpaid child support amounts are called “arrears.” In most cases, arrears will always be owed by the parent, even if he or she asks a court to reduce future child support payments. In addition, arrears usually cannot be offset by other expenses the parent pays for the child. For example, a parent who owes child support can’t get out of paying arrears by making other payments for the child’s benefit, like buying the child clothes. These other payments will likely be considered gifts and not a credit to the child support obligations.

Because a parent’s obligation to support his or her child is so vital, there are many different ways to collect unpaid child support. The tools available for collecting unpaid child support vary from state to state, but they generally include:

Income withholding. This is usually considered to be the most effective way to collect unpaid child support. Under this method, automatic deductions are made from the delinquent parent’s paycheck.

• Unemployment insurance benefits deductions. Unpaid child support can be deducted from unemployment benefits the delinquent parent receives.

• Social Security Disability benefits. Although Social Security Disability benefits usually cannot be attached to satisfy a legal debt, they can be attached for child support purposes. Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are usually not attachable for child support.

• Court judgment. A parent owed child support arrears can obtain a court judgment, which will allow interest to accrue to the unpaid amount. A judgment can create a lien on property owned by the delinquent parent.

• Bank accounts and property seizure. The delinquent parent’s property, including his or her bank accounts, can be seized to satisfy a child support obligation.

• Lien. In the context of child support cases, a lien is a nonpossessory interest that the parent with custody obtains in the real or personal property of the parent who owes child support. A lien lets the parent delinquent in paying support keep the property, but as a practical matter it prevents him or her from selling or transferring it unless the underlying obligation is paid. Liens work because potential buyers and lenders receive notice that a lien exists during the process of transferring the title or deed. The potential buyer or lender reacts to this “cloud on the title” by requiring the noncustodial parent to satisfy the lien, or to obtain a release from the custodial parent, before completing the transaction.

• Intercept tax refunds. Income tax refunds of parents who owe unpaid child support can be intercepted with the proper amount going to the parent owed money. This applies to both federal and state income taxes.

• Passport denial. This is another effective enforcement tool. Under this remedy, the U.S. Government will deny (or not renew) a passport to any person who owes a child support debt exceeding a certain amount. These people must bring their child support current before being allowed to travel outside the United States.

• License revocation. All states have procedures providing for suspending or revoking the delinquent parent’s state issued licenses, such as drivers’ licenses, professional and occupational licenses, as well as recreational and sporting licenses. Before losing a license, the unpaid parent’s arrearages usually must exceed a certain amount.

• Consumer reporting agencies. The delinquent parent can be reported to major credit bureaus, which will hurt the person’s ability to obtain credit. The information reported includes the amount of the child support arrears.

• Lottery winnings. Lottery winnings can be taken to pay past due child support. Most states require that the lottery winnings exceed a certain amount of money before this remedy can be used.

• Criminal actions. Failure to pay child support is a crime, and a person can be criminally prosecuted for not paying it. If a court finds a person guilty of failing to pay child support, he or she can be placed on probation or even sent to prison. In some states, all other remedies must be tried before a person can be criminally prosecuted.

These are some of the main ways to collect unpaid child support. People who are owed child support can call our law firm to learn more about these remedies as well as other collection options available.

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