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How enforcement of child support works

Steps courts may take to ensure the payment of child support, and what you can do.

Parents have a legal responsibility to financially support their children. The enforcement of child support is meant to ensure that parents follow through on that responsibility. The law has a vested interest in ensuring that child support orders are followed and, as a result, every state has mechanisms for enforcing child support.

Each state differs in the exact procedures and standards of child support enforcement. However, there are general principles and tendencies to keep in mind if you owe or are owed child support under a court or administrative order.

What to do if you are owed child support

If a court or administrative department has ordered child support payments by another parent, but that parent has not paid in part or in full, then you may be able to take action to ensure that the child support orders are followed.

Many states will have a division of child support as a part of the state government. This should be your first contact regarding child support payments. Your state government’s website will usually have contact info for this department. If they don't, you can ask for the best way to contact the department at the nearest family court.

These departments can assist you in collecting the child support payments that are due, often at little to no cost. Be sure to provide them with any information that might help their efforts. Bring copies, not originals, of any child support orders or forms for all of the children in a child support plan, as well as information about the other parent.

While these government agencies can be quite helpful, they are also limited by the amount of time and resources they can put towards your case. If your case is particularly complex, or requires intensive personal attention, then you may wish to contact a child support attorney. This can be an expensive option, and you should consider whether the outcome of receiving child support makes sense in light of the anticipated costs.

What to do if you owe or are behind on child support

If you know that you will be falling behind in child support payments you should immediately contact the court or administrative agency that set child support and explain why you are unable to meet payments. While it may be tempting to avoid contacting the authorities, you can prevent problems by explaining why circumstances prevent payment of child support. You must provide adequate justification, such as loss of a job, a cut back on hours, or unexpected medical expenses.

If you do not contact the court or agency ahead of time then you will likely be forced to pay any overdue payments in full. Being forthcoming and honest about an inability to pay can help you avoid a situation where you must pay more than you are able.

If you believe you are not behind in payments, you may have to prove that you made the payments. Keep reliable written records and receipts of any payments and use these records to contest claims that you are behind in your payments. You are entitled to some form of hearing or review, but you must be the one to request this review and there are often time limits for this request.

How child support orders are enforced

In addition to locating parents who owe child support, child support enforcement agencies have a variety of tools for the enforcement of child support. While the various methods vary state by state, courts or agencies may be able to take the following actions so long as child support continues to be unpaid:

  • garnish wages
  • place liens on a home or other property, similar to a mortgage
  • seizing property
  • suspend or withhold drivers licenses or passports
  • withhold tax refunds
  • withhold benefits or unemployment payments

It is possible to be arrested for failing to pay court ordered child support,but this is usually a last resort when other methods have failed, as it potentially ruins a parents potential to pay by resulting in job loss or other consequences.

If an owing parent lives in another state, your state may transfer the case to another state under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA). Additionally, interstate cases of unpaid child support could result in criminal charges under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998, which makes it a federal crime to refuse to pay child support for a child that lives in a different state.

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