Will You Go to Jail at a Show-Cause Hearing for Child Support?

By Beverly Bird

Updated December 14, 2018

child cute little girl and mother holding hand together


A show-cause hearing is a demand by the court – usually at the behest of your ex – that you appear before a judge and explain certain actions you've taken in regard to a family court order. In the case of child support, you might have to explain actions you haven't taken, such as making required support payments. It's not a foregone conclusion that you'll go to jail, although it's sometimes possible.

If You Have a Good Explanation

The court doesn't schedule a show-cause hearing because the judge wants you to go to jail. Rather, he wants you to pay your past-due child support. Your ex must file a motion with the court stating that you're behind in payments and asking the judge to order you to pay. The judge will set the matter for a hearing and ask you why you haven't been making child support payments. What happens next depends on what you tell the judge. If you've lost your job or another event has occurred to prevent you from making your full payments, he may work something out so you can get caught up. Your payments might be reduced temporarily and a lump sum payment scheduled in the future to make up the difference. He might order that you pay a little extra each week to catch up with arrears. You generally won't go to jail unless you offer no explanation for your missed payments or all other remedies have been exhausted and you still owe support.

Contempt of Court

Jail time is usually the result of the judge holding you in contempt of court. This might happen if you don't appear for the show-cause hearing – the judge can order a bench warrant for your arrest. It also might happen if you fail to give any reasonable excuse for not paying support and decline to work with the court to figure out a way to catch up. If the judge finds that you're in contempt, he can fine you as well as order jail time. You might also be held in contempt of court if your ex has had to file motions repeatedly to get you to pay, you haven't done so, and this isn't your first show-cause hearing on the matter.

The Court's Other Options

The court has other options for making you pay child support. If your ex has signed up for child support services so that you are making your payments through the state, the agency can take enforcement actions without involving the court. Your driver's license can be suspended or your passport denied. The state can intercept your tax refunds or place liens against your property so that you can't sell or refinance it until you pay your past due child support. Unemployment and disability benefits can be garnished, as well as Social Security payments. You usually will not be sent to jail unless and until these methods have failed or are impossible to implement, and your lifestyle indicates that you have the means to pay.

A Possible Defense

You don't have to sit idly by biting your nails while you wait for your ex to file a show-cause motion. If something is going on in your life that prevents you from earning enough money to pay child support, you can file your own motion with the court asking for help. Although a judge doesn't have the power to erase your arrears, the court can modify the amount you have to pay going forward so you don't keep falling further behind. In fact, some judges will base decisions at show-cause hearings on whether a parent has made any effort to modify his support because of changed circumstances or if he's just ignored the dilemma. Even if you don't file for modification in advance, you might be able to ask for it at the show-cause hearing.