5 Steps You Can Take to Collect Back Child Support
Reviewed by Carina Jenkins, J.D.
Child support laws help ensure children have financial support when parents split up. However, you might face hardship and frustration if your child's other parent isn't paying court-ordered support.
Fortunately, you have options. Here are some steps you can take to collect back child support.
What Is Back Child Support?
In short, back child support is past-due support. The term usually refers to support that's significantly past due or that hasn't been paid for months or years. The amount of back child support continues to grow until paid off, and it may accrue interest.
Who Can Enforce Child Support Payments?
Support is usually paid to the parent who has the child most of the time, sometimes called the custodial parent. However, many states calculate child support amounts based on parenting time and parental income, even when parents share custody or have equal parenting time. Although child support is for the benefit of a child, payments are made from one parent to the other.
The receiving parent can take action to enforce child support orders. States also have the authority to enforce child support orders, even if the custodial parent doesn't act on them. Most states have child support agencies that will take action if the custodial parent asks for their help or the child is receiving state benefits. Both state and federal laws give these agencies and district attorneys the authority to enforce child support orders.
How Are Support Payments Enforced?
Several tools are available for ensuring that child support is paid:
Automatic Payments and Support Registries
Many states have systems that allow support payments to be automatically deducted from paychecks. State support registries keep track of payments made. These options are often available even if support isn't past due.
Wage garnishment allows past-due support to be taken directly from paychecks. Past-due support can also be collected from a state or federal tax return.
Liens can be placed against the owing parent's bank accounts, real estate and other property in cases of significant back support.
Suspension of Professional Licenses
If the parent obligated to pay support holds a professional license, such as those held by lawyers and dentists, the license could be suspended for unpaid support.
A judge can eventually find a person guilty of contempt of court for refusing to pay support. This can result in jail time.
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What Can the Custodial Parent Do if the Noncustodial Parent Owes Back Child Support?
You may be wondering what you can do if you're not receiving court-ordered child support. Here are five steps you can take to collect back child support:
1. Contact Your Local Child Support Agency or a Family Law Attorney
Collecting support from an ex who isn't paying can be difficult, and legal procedures are often confusing. A child support enforcement agency or lawyer may be able to provide helpful information on your available options. In some cases, a state enforcement agency may be able to assist you in pursuing your case free of charge.
2. Pursue a Wage Garnishment
States often have a simplified procedure for garnishing wages when a person owes back child support. Garnishment can be a good solution if the paying parent is employed and getting regular paychecks but not making support payments. A percentage of each check is withheld by the person's employer and paid directly toward back support, usually through a state agency.
3. Seek a Judgment for Back Support
You can ask a court to enter a judgment for back support. Although there was already a court order for child support, a judgment is a clear court order for the total amount of unpaid support and any interest accrued. A judgment can make it easier to pursue some collection methods.
4. File Liens and Pursue Assets
Once you have a judgment, you can attempt to collect back child support from the noncustodial parent's assets. You may be able to garnish bank accounts, impact credit scores and place liens against houses or other property.
5. Pursue Contempt of Court
Finally, you or the state can pursue contempt of court charges if the other parent fails to pay support. The other parent could face fines, jail time and other legal consequences. If the parent loses their professional job or is put in jail, they may lose their ability to earn income and pay support. However, contempt charges motivate some people to find employment or turn over funds.
What if the Noncustodial Parent Can't Pay Child Support Payments Due to a Lack of Funds?
Collecting support can be difficult if the noncustodial parent can't pay. How the law handles these situations can depend on the jurisdiction and the reason for the lack of funds.
The court may modify child support if the noncustodial parent can't work due to chronic illness, injury or other circumstances beyond their control. However, this usually won't affect back child support that has already accrued.
If the noncustodial parent can't pay due to voluntary unemployment or frivolous spending, you may be able to pursue contempt of court. Doing so may force the noncustodial parent to find suitable work or prioritize support payments.
The custodial parent can attempt to collect child support from other sources. Regardless of the noncustodial parent's reason for not working, child support can be taken from unemployment checks, tax returns and other sources.
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