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Child support arrears

What are Child Support Arrears?

Child support arrears are past due child support that a noncustodial parent—or the parent without primary custody of the child—owes to the custodial parent. Whether you’re trying to collect arrears or you owe it, you’ll need to understand how the process works before you can resolve the issue.

How are child support arrears calculated?

Current child support arrears are calculated by determining the difference between what the noncustodial parent owes and what they’ve paid. Even if the court later approves a new child support order with a smaller child support obligation, it won’t apply retroactively, meaning it will have no effect on the arrears balance.

Some states may assess interest on unpaid child support, which can increase the total amount owed. The state can also assign court costs, attorney fees, and paternity testing costs to the noncustodial parent.

Finally, the noncustodial parent may owe retroactive child support, also known as back child support. This is support the noncustodial parent owes for the time between the parents’ separation and the final child support court date.

To calculate back child support, the state will take the amount of child support established in the child support order and multiply it by the number of months that passed before the order was finalized. How many months back the courts can go varies from state to state.

What is the difference between assigned arrears and unassigned arrears?

Arrears are “assigned” if the custodial parent received public assistance. This allows the state to collect child support payments (and interest) to cover the costs of the assistance. The state can claim some or all of the support payments until it has been fully reimbursed.

Arrears are “unassigned” if the custodial parent didn’t get public assistance. In this case, the state has no claim on the child support arrears. It will simply provide any money it collects to the custodial parent directly.

How can you collect the child support arrears you’re owed?

Every state has a child support agency that can help you collect unpaid child support. At most state and federal levels, the child support collection process is automatic. Certain agencies will automatically be notified of the overdue amount once it reaches a certain threshold.

Your local child support collection agency can help you collect an arrearage from a noncustodial parent as well, either for free or for $25 or less. Depending on where you live, the county or the state may handle this process.

If you’re owed child support, the first step is to contact your local child support agency. They can help you find the noncustodial parent and have a variety of enforcement methods at their disposal to compel the other parent to pay, including:

  • Wage garnishment. Some child support orders include a provision that automatically orders wage garnishments if the noncustodial parent misses a certain number of payments. Your local child support recovery unit has the authority to garnish the wages of the other parent to cover child support arrears.
  • Tax refund withholding. The custodial parent can work with state agencies to intercept the other parent’s tax refund to satisfy any outstanding child support obligations.
  • License revocation. Agencies can also have the driver’s or professional license of the noncustodial parent suspended or revoked.
  • Contempt of court. Because a child support agreement is a court order, a parent who fails to abide by it can be held in contempt of court. This charge could carry fines or even jail time.

You can also work with an attorney or private child support collection agency to recover child support. While these services will cost more than a state agency, they can be helpful or even necessary in certain circumstances, such as when the parent is hard to find or has unreported income.

What are your options if you owe child support arrears?

The three most common options are waiving interest, correcting errors in past child support calculations, or modifying future payments.

Waiving interest

Your state may allow you to petition to have the interest on your back child support waived. However, getting approved for this typically requires you to agree to a payment plan to satisfy your obligation by a certain date.

Correcting errors in past support calculations

Sometimes, the amount you’re said to owe is actually incorrect. For example, maybe you were charged for child support during a period where your child lived with you. This possibility is more likely when there have been significant changes in custody arrangements.

Modifying future child support payments

If you find yourself falling further and further into child support debt, you may be able to ask the court to modify your child support order so your payments are more reasonable.

For example, the court may lower the amount if you can prove that your income or expenses have changed, such as a job loss or the birth of a new child. Remember, though, that modifications to the child support agreement are not retroactive.

In other words, the new payment will only affect your future payments, not your existing child support arrears.

What can happen if you don’t pay child support obligations?

If you have outstanding child support obligations, make sure you don’t avoid dealing with the situation. Not paying child support can result in criminal sanctions. The Child Support Recovery Act (CSRA) makes willfully failing to pay a child support arrearage a misdemeanor at the federal level.

An amendment to the CSRA also makes it a felony to travel across state lines or abroad to evade child support payments, to not pay more than $2,500 in child support, or to not pay for more than 2 years.

Courts typically use the sanctions mentioned earlier in this article when enforcing child support. (Wage garnishment, tax refund withholding, license revocation, and contempt of court). However, those sanctions can also include:

  • Denial of passport. If you owe more than $2,500 in back child support, you will likely be unable to apply for a passport or use the one you have.
  • Asset seizures. The government has the power to seize any valuable assets you have, such as boats, cars, motorcycles, valuable stocks, planes, property, accounts receivable, and possibly your interest in a business partnership.
  • Account freezes. The government can also seize, or levy, your bank account to satisfy your outstanding child support obligations. The levy will put a hold on your account for a certain period of time, during which you can request a hearing if you believe the seizure was wrongful. Unless the judge agrees with you at the hearing, the government can confiscate the funds in your account.

Can you go to jail for not paying child support?

While you can potentially go to jail for not paying overdue child support, the courts generally only use this sanction as a last resort. The reasoning for doing so is that if you’re in jail, you can’t make a living to pay off your obligation.

However, judges sometimes issue child support warrants for the noncustodial parent. These warrants can be civil or criminal.

A judge will issue a civil child support warrant when a custodial parent files a complaint against the other parent for contempt of court. The noncustodial parent must then appear in court, where the judge may order payment of the child support arrears, a fine, or, rarely, jail time.

A criminal child support warrant comes about when state or federal prosecutors bring a criminal case against a noncustodial parent. This type of warrant is one for your arrest. Typically, criminal cases result from some violation of the CSRA mentioned earlier.

Whether you owe child support arrears or are owed them, working with your state agency and an attorney can help you navigate the process of paying or getting paid back child support.

Child support arrears
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