Penalties for Child Support Arrears in California

By Elizabeth Rayne, J.D.

husband and wife fighting  with a child sitting between them

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Falling behind in child support payments under a divorce order can lead to the initiation of enforcement proceedings against a noncustodial parent in the state of California. While this process often involves the Department of Child Services, certain private agencies, attorneys or the other parent can also begin the action. In some cases, penalties for nonpayment can include wage garnishment and suspension of drivers' or professional licenses, as well as tax liens and even jail time. However, if certain circumstance have been met, the noncustodial parent may be entitled to a reduction of the child support amounts by asking the court via a petition for a modification.

Child Support Enforcement

In California, the local branches of the California Department of Child Support Services assist parents with enforcing child support orders. Parents may also file a motion with the court that issued the court support order, or hire a private attorney or agency to enforce the order. When the state is involved, via a local child support agency, the agency is responsible for getting the payments and sending them to the other parent, free of charge.

Independent Enfrocement Motion

When the noncustodial parent has child support that is more than 30 days late, the custodial parent must serve the other parent with a notice of delinquency, which provides the amount the parent owes in child support, and a notice that the unpaid support is subject to a penalty of 6 percent per month. The parent must wait 30 days after the notice of delinquency is served before filing a motion with the court to enforce the child support order and obtain a judgment for the amount owed. The motion must be served on the other parent with a hearing date.

Enforcement Measures

The court may order a number of enforcement measures to encourage the parent to fulfill child support obligations. The state may revoke the parent's driver's or professional licenses, or intercept payments from wages, social security, unemployment, tax refunds, or even lottery winnings. Additionally, the court may place liens on property owned by the noncompliant parent, and in some situations, deny passport applications based on child support owed. Missed payments are reported to credit agencies, and may affect the credit rating of the noncompliant parent.


In some cases, the custodial parent may request a contempt order. A court will find contempt when the other parent has the ability to pay child support, but willingly refuses to do so. Contempt is a serious charge, and generally only be ordered when other enforcement actions are not successful. In addition to penalties and interest on the amount due, the nonpaying parent may face jail time if found in contempt.


In some cases, a parent may request a modification to the child support order. The court will only grant the order if the parent shows there has been a significant change in circumstances, such as a significant change in the income of either parent, or a change in the amount of time the child spends with each parent. A court may also review the child support order for military service or deployment. Instead of filing a motion with the court, the parents may agree to change the child support order, and file a stipulation with the court. Without a stipulation, the decision will be up to the court.