Can Assets Be Sold to Fulfill a Child Support Obligation?

By Rob Jennings J.D.

For sale sign by house exterior

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Although child support law varies from state to state, a child support obligation is generally fulfilled by monthly payments made by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent -- the one receiving support. If you don't pay, however, your state's child support laws probably contain several mechanisms for satisfying your past due balance -- sometimes referred to as "back support" or "arrears." This can include attaching and selling your assets.

Before Assets Are Attached and Sold

Attaching and selling assets is an extreme remedy that child support enforcement agencies usually only use when a payor gets a certain number of payments or a certain dollar amount behind. Many child support debtors have no property to attach -- or the property they have is not worth the effort associated with the legal maneuvers involved in attachment and sale. Where assets exist for seizure and sale, the efforts involved in asserting and enforcing a lien usually only make sense in the context of arrears balances of a certain level. Sometimes, this is written into state law; in Nevada, for example, the asset being attached and sold can't be less in value than the amount of the arrears being pursued and the amount of annual support due.

Attaching Assets For Back Support

Before a debtor's asset can be sold, the custodial parent -- either through her private attorney or via the local child support enforcement agency -- has to assert her lien. Procedures vary from state to state, but asserting a lien generally begins with providing notice to all interested parties, agencies and officials that the asset is subject to a child support lien. This may involve sending notice to the state department of motor vehicles or recording a notice of claim of lien on real property in the office of the register of deeds or the clerk of court in the county where the debtor's land is located. In the case of bank accounts, it can involve informing the bank that the debtor's accounts are subject to the lien, and the accounts are then typically frozen.

Selling Assets for Back Support

While asserting the lien can be as simple as completing the statutorily required paperwork and providing notice to interested parties, actually enforcing the lien by liquidating or selling the asset is generally much more complicated. To enforce a child support lien against real property, the claiming parent will usually have to go through a proceeding very similar to a foreclosure, although family court judges can force the sale of real property on the court's own motion. Hearings are generally required before a custodial parent may levy the noncustodial parent's bank account or seize possession of his motor vehicle. The asset then has to be sold at a public or private sale according to the state's lien statutes, with the net proceeds applied to the outstanding child support arrears balance.

Alternatives To Selling Assets

Attachment and seizure can be burdensome processes; assets are often subject to other security interests that leave little to no equity available to satisfy child support obligations. For this reason, courts often turn to other remedies available in state law for compelling payment of arrears balances. Child support debtors can often be incarcerated until they "bail" themselves out by making a predetermined payment. An arrears payment can also be added to the debtor's current monthly obligation to help pay down the balance.