Back child support is unpaid, overdue child support. Unpaid child support payments are also called "arrearages," and a person is "in arrears" if they owe back child support. Courts offer parents several options to enforce child support orders and to collect any back child support they are owed.

Collecting back child support through CSE

Parents in need of back child support can usually have a lawyer file enforcement actions and litigate on their behalf. However, if you do not have, or can't get, legal representation, every state has a Child Support Enforcement Program (CSE), usually in the social services department, department of revenue, or the state Attorney General's office. A state's CSE office can collect back child support only if debt has accumulated and the parent who owes the support (the non-custodial parent) has been sent notice.

States can collect back child support through several methods, including the following:

  • Income withholding (also called wage assignment), where back child support is withheld from the non-custodial parent's paycheck and distributed to the custodial parent
  • Transfer of federal and state income tax refunds or state lottery winnings to pay for back child support
  • Lien on property if the non-custodial parent owns the property (such as a house)

CSE officials may impose other measures if non-custodial parents don't comply with child support orders. These include the following:

  • Automatically reporting unpaid child support to credit reporting agencies
  • Suspending the non-custodial parent's driver's, professional, occupational, and/or recreational licenses
  • Seizing the non-custodial parent's bank accounts
  • Suspending the non-custodial parent's passport
  • Filing a contempt of court against the non-custodial parent

If you seek back child support

You do not need to use the Child Support Enforcement Program to collect back child support. Most states allow you to file a withholding order on your own, even without a lawyer. If you do not know where your former spouse works, or where he or she lives, you may need to work with CSE officials who can use government resources (for example, social security information) to locate your former spouse and enforce payment. CSE agencies usually charge a small fee to parents who are not on public assistance.

If you wish to pursue liens against property or contempt of court orders to collect back child support, it's wise to hire a lawyer or work with your local CSE agency.

If you owe back child support

It's difficult to get out of paying back child support. However, in some states and in some cases, child support orders can be modified, which may reduce the amount of back child support owed.

Additional resources:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Administration for Children and Families (Office of Child Support Enforcement Fact Sheet)

Divorce Law Info (tools for collection)

American Bar Association Family Legal Guide (Family Legal Guide)

Related Legal Guides:

Child Support Laws

No Child Support