Can I Go to Jail in Maine for Not Paying Child Support?

By Elizabeth Rayne, J.D.

Mother and daughter at school

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Although Maine provides for several collection mechanisms in the case of unpaid child support, jail time is rarely ordered. The enforcement division of the Department of Health and Human Services is charged with making sure payments are made and will pursue wage withholding or property liens when necessary, but will not institute contempt proceedings against you. However, contempt and, ultimately, incarceration can be pursued in limited circumstances by the custodial parent.

State Enforcement and Wage Withholding

In Maine, the state's Division of Support Enforcement & Recovery, or DSER, works with the offices of DHHS to enforce child support orders. When a party applies for the DSER's services in collecting child support, the DSER's first step will be to send an immediate wage withholding order to your employer. Almost all child support orders automatically include a wage withholding provision. The court may not issue an automatic withholding order if the parents have submitted a court-approved written agreement outlining an alternative arrangement or "good cause" can be shown, meaning the withholding order would not be in the child's best interest and you have paid all previous support orders on time.

Collection for Families Receiving TANF

The DSER and DHHS automatically provide child support enforcement services for parents that receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Parents who do not receive TANF may also receive help from the state to collect unpaid support, but must apply for that assistance. When the state collects support for a TANF family, a portion of the support payment goes to the family, while the remainder goes to the state for reimbursement of some or all of the temporary assistance the state paid on behalf of the child.

Other Enforcement Procedures

When support becomes past due, DSER and DHHS have additional options for enforcement as time passes. The state sends a notice of debt stating the amount of unpaid support. You will have 30 days to contest that amount; if not contested, the state may file liens against your property, collect from bank accounts, take tax refunds and report the debt to credit bureaus. When you are more than 30 days behind in child support, the state may begin to withhold wages even if there is no enforceable income withholding order in place. Once 60 days have passed, the state may suspend your licenses, including occupational and driver's licenses.

Jail Time

Unlike other states, in Maine, jailing a parent for failure to pay child support is rare. Generally, imprisonment is a last resort in enforcing support orders. But failure to follow a civil order is considered an act of civil contempt, which is punishable by imprisonment. The DSER and DHHS typically do not utilize contempt orders that can result in jail time as a method of enforcement.

Independent Enforcement

While parents have the option to seek assistance from state departments, the custodial parent may also file motions for enforcement or contempt independently or with the help of an attorney in order to collect child support. Parties filing independently must present evidence at a court hearing or the case may be settled in mediation. The court may then award sanctions for failure to pay child support, such as fines or imprisonment.