What Happens If You Get Behind on Child Support Payments?

By Marilyn Lindblad

Man with empty pockets

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If you've lost your job or suffered a financial catastrophe, chances are that you're barely able to make your child support payments. You might even have fallen behind on them. Unlike credit card and car payments, paying child support is a legal obligation backed by court order. While each state has its own child support enforcement methods, many of the penalties imposed for falling behind on payments are similar from state to state.

Levies and Garnishments

If you fall behind on your child support payments, the state may collect child support from you from a variety of income sources. For example, the state can garnish your wages, levy your bank accounts and seize your tax refunds and lottery winnings until your child support obligation is once again current. In some states, the agency responsible for child support enforcement may issue a wage withholding order to your employer for ongoing support. Once in place, your child support payments are deducted from your paycheck, even after you get caught up on any past due arrearages.

Other State Action

Individual states have various ways of motivating parents to stay current with their child support payments. Until you get caught up, your state may withhold or suspend any state-issued licenses you hold, such as a license to practice law or a driver's license. In extreme cases, such as a case where you have the money to pay support but refuse to out of spite, a judge can hold you in contempt of court and even jail you for disobeying the child support order.

Financial Consequences

Your state may report your slow child support payments to a credit bureau, resulting in a reduction in your credit score and negative entries on your credit report. Many states also add interest charges to past due support. If you want to buy a house, your lender may require you to bring your payments current before they will approve your mortgage application and close the deal. In many instances, the judgment against you for child support can be collected several years after your children are grown, and you cannot discharge a child support judgment in bankruptcy.

Modifying Support

Courts acknowledge that a family's needs and circumstances change over time and allow parents to change their child support arrangements to meet those changing needs. If your financial circumstances have changed for the worse, you can ask the other parent to voluntarily reduce your child support payments. If you and your former spouse reach an agreement on new support terms, you would then submit the agreement, in writing, to the court that established your most recent child support order for review and approval. If you and your ex-spouse are unable to reach an agreement, you may file a motion to modify support directly with the court. If the judge grants your motion, the court will enter a new order establishing the revised child support amount. In some states, you also have the option of seeking modification through your local child support enforcement agency.