Can Child Support Payments Be Garnished From an Unemployment Check?

By Heather Frances J.D.

Mother talking to son

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Parents are legally obligated to provide financially for their children, so courts establish child support orders as part of divorce decrees. A noncustodial parent’s obligation to pay child support does not stop because he’s unemployed, and the custodial parent or a state agency can still pursue enforcement of a child support order.

Garnishment Vs. Withholding

Technically, garnishment and wage withholding are different things when it comes to child support. Garnishment typically applies to money taken from a paycheck, unemployment check or other income to pay child support arrearages -- past-due amounts. Withholding typically applies to current payments. Child support payments -- both current payments and arrearages -- can be deducted from unemployment income, though procedures vary between states. Most child support orders contain income withholding instructions. However, garnishment from unemployment or other forms of income for arrearages may require a garnishment order entered against the noncustodial parent.

Initiating Garnishment

In some states, like Kentucky, a noncustodial parent must disclose whether he has a child support obligation when he applies for unemployment benefits. Payments ordered by Title IV-D support orders -- those established and paid through the state’s child support enforcement agency -- may be deducted automatically from unemployment benefits, but your state may not automatically deduct payments from other support orders. However, the custodial parent may petition the court for an order to direct withholding even if she is not receiving payment through a state agency.

Deduction Percentages

Your entire check cannot be taken to pay garnishments. Federal law does not permit garnishments for arrears to exceed 60 percent of the noncustodial parent’s disposable income, which is the income available to the parent after withholding for things like taxes. If the noncustodial parent has two families to support, the limit lowers to 50 percent. States also have their own laws to limit withholding and garnishment from unemployment compensation. For example, Texas limits withholding for current child support obligations to 50 percent of the unemployment earnings.

Continued Obligations

Even if child support is not withheld from the noncustodial parent’s unemployment benefits, he still owes those missed payments. The noncustodial parent must make other arrangements to pay the missed payments directly to the custodial parent or state agency as directed by the income withholding order. If he does not pay as ordered, he may accrue interest and penalties, which he is responsible to pay.