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Enforcement and Collection of Back Child Support

If a non-custodial parent fails to pay court-ordered child support, the custodial parent can rest assured that federal and state laws mandate tough enforcement procedures. Those who are delinquent and owe back child support are often called "deadbeat parents," a term that also is often used in the titles of state laws meant to ensure the timely payment of child support. In legal terms, those who are delinquent in child support payments are said to be "in arrears."

A number of states and counties shame deadbeat parents by posting their pictures, names, and delinquent amount online. Examples include Riverside County, California and Suwannee County, Florida.

This article provides an overview of state and federal laws and enforcement measures pertaining to unpaid child support. For more information about eligibility and how to obtain support, see FindLaw's Getting Child Support subsection. See Child Support Enforcement for additional articles and resources on how to collect on unpaid child support obligations.

Federal Child Support Laws

The Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984 grants districts attorneys and state attorneys generals the authority to collect back child support on behalf of custodial parents. This and other federal child support initiatives are managed by the Office of Child Support Enforcement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

A deadbeat parent’s failure to follow directives from a district attorney or state authority could subject them to penalties including jail time. However, Since a jailed parent is unlikely to be able to make regular payments, it is reserved as a last resort and used more as a deterrent. The goal is to encourage non-custodial parents to pay the ordered amount of child support, so enforcement typically begins with the removal of certain privileges and other restrictions. For example, a parent owing more than $2,500 in support may be denied a passport until he or she pays their past due balance.

In accordance with the Act, state attorneys may take any of the following enforcement measures against a delinquent non-custodial parent:

  • Garnishment of wages
  • Liens against property or real estate
  • Reporting the debtor to credit bureaus
  • Freezing bank accounts
  • Suspension of professional or driver's license (in some states)
  • Contempt order
  • Jail time

In addition, the federal Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) establishes matters of jurisdiction when more than one state is involved in a child support dispute. Specific components of the act are as follows:

  • States must defer to child support orders entered by courts in the child's home state.
  • Continuing exclusive jurisdiction (CEJ) is granted to the place where the order was originally entered.
  • Only the law of the state with CEJ may be applied to modification requests.
  • A custodial parent may have an order mailed to an out-of-state court for assistance in enforcing the order.
  • A custodial parent may have an order mailed to the employer of the non-custodial parent (for wage garnishment).

See the DHHS's Handbook on Child Support Enforcement [PDF] for more information about the nationwide partnership to collect unpaid child support.

Enforcement Procedures

The enforcement of child support orders is handled at the state level, but the procedures are generally quite similar among all states. See State and Tribal Child Support Agency Contacts (DHHS) for specific information pertaining to your state or jurisdiction.

According to New York's Division of Child Support Enforcement, a delinquent non-custodial parent in the state is sent a notice explaining the child support process, including a time frame for payment and detailed instructions for how to comply. Depending on the amount of child support owed, or the length of time past-due amounts have been accruing, the state may take actions such as wage garnishment; interception of unemployment insurance; driver's license suspension; or passport denial (this is not a complete list). If these administrative penalties fail to induce payment, probation or jail time may result.

If the Non-Custodial Parent Cannot Pay

Back child support is on the short list of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. But even though deadbeat parents face the possibility of jail time for nonpayment, no one will be jailed simply for lack of means. A non-custodial parent who is unable to make full payments must file a formal motion requesting modification of child support, reflecting his or her current financial situation. Failure to file a motion could result in a default judgment of delinquency.

If you are having difficulty collecting back child support payments, consider meeting with a family law attorney experienced in child support matters.

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