What Happens When You Don't Pay Child Support?

By Mackenzie Maxwell

Updated October 22, 2018

Mother comforting daughter

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When parents of minors get divorced, one parent may owe child support to the other. This regular payment is a court order that you should never ignore. However, sometimes circumstances arise that make people unable to make the full payment on time. If you find yourself in such a situation, you need to learn about your options and act quickly.

You May Face Jail Time

In the most extreme circumstances, you could face jail time for child support arrears. The judge can find you in contempt and put you in jail until you decide to pay. However, judges prefer to save this punishment for extreme cases. You can hardly find better-paying employment or sort out your financial affairs from behind bars. However, a judge may issue a jail sentence when the parent can make the payment without difficulty, but simply refuses to do so. In this case, the problem is that the parent is unwilling, not unable, to carry out the child support court order.

Common Consequences for Failing to Pay Support

If this is your first violation of the court's support order, the judge may be more lenient than to give you jail time. One consequence may be that the court prevents you from receiving your federal tax refund until you catch up with your support payments. It may also garnish your wages or seize other property to cover the payments.

If the problem continues to escalate, the judge may decide to revoke your occupational, business or driver's licenses. In some cases, courts have even denied passports. If a judge uses all of these options, and the parent still doesn't pay, it may resort to ordering jail time.

Paying Child Support With No Job

If you suddenly lose your job, petition the court immediately. Even if you have no job, you are still on the hook for any child support that the court has previously ordered. However, if you succeed in your petition, you can get a reduction in the amount owed.

Just like in the original decision, the judge will look at all types of income. She will note income you receive from rental properties, Social Security benefits or trusts, for example. The court may also impute your potential earnings. This means that the judge estimates your future earning potential based on your job history. So, while you may be between jobs now, the court can make assumptions about your future career and order child support based on these assumptions.

While these assumptions can frustrate well-meaning parents who have fallen on hard times, they have good intentions. Imputing keeps parents who simply want to dodge child support payments from being able to refuse work or from getting paid under the table. The goal is to ensure that both parents work together to meet the child's needs.

If you are out of work because of changes in your industry, be sure to inform the court. For example, if you were a coal miner, but it has become difficult to find work in that field, the judge may take that into consideration when she imputes.

Extreme Circumstances

Sometimes it's not a job loss that keeps you from paying your child support, but something else. For example, you may find yourself in the hospital at the time that payment is due. In such cases, the other parent may have set a court date for a hearing. If this happens, do everything in your power to attend the hearing. If you're still indisposed, you may have your attorney attend. At the hearing, present any documentation you have that verifies the reason you could not pay the child support on time. Be sure to catch up with your child support as soon as you are able.

Make Everything Official

Life can take unexpected turns for which the court may not account. For example, you may incur a huge medical bill or other debt that makes paying child support difficult. When this happens, you may think that you and the other parent can come to an informal agreement on what you should pay in the meantime, but avoid this route.

If the court is not involved in the decision to lower your payments, you remain on the hook for the original amount. At any time, the other parent can petition the court for the rest of the money. If this happens, the court can use all of the tools at its disposal to collect the fee. Not only will you have to pay the full amount from the original court order, but you may also end up with additional legal fees.

Similarly, you should ensure that all payments that you make in full are well documented. Avoid paying the other parent in cash. Some state attorneys general offices allow you to make payments directly through their websites. This is the best way to keep everything above board and keep yourself out of trouble.

When you cannot go directly through the attorney general, choose payment methods that give you plenty of documentation. Today there are even mobile apps to help you pay and document child support payments. Some of these apps send the records to the court and offer other features that make co-parenting a little easier.

Child Support and Bankruptcy

If your financial burden becomes too much to bear, consider filing for bankruptcy. Doing so may relieve you of many debts, but not those from past-due child support payments. If you are several thousand dollars behind on your child support, bankruptcy won't erase that. However, it can still help.

Filing for Chapter 13 bankruptcy can provide a payment plan option for child support. These debt consolidation plans can span up to 60 months. If you make the regular monthly payments on current child support and follow the consolidation plan, you can get caught up and avoid severe consequences.

Bankruptcy can also help by eliminating other debts. Although you will still owe child support, you can use the payments that were going toward credit cards and other debts and apply that money to your child support debt. This strategy can help you quickly catch up.

Do not file for bankruptcy on a whim. It is a serious financial decision that can affect your finances for years to come. Although nobody should take the decision likely, it is sometimes the best path to avoid being in contempt of court for child support.

Custody Changes and Child Support

If the judge gives you and the other parent joint custody, do not assume that this changes your child support obligations. You can only stop or reduce payments if the court specifically orders it. Similarly, if the other parent drops your child off late or keeps the child on your visitation days, you cannot use this as a reason to skip support payments. Remember that you are not paying the custodial parent for privileges to your child; you pay the support to help cover expenses for your child.

One custody change that can alter your child support payments is the termination of parental rights. If you decide to sign away the right to see your child and make decisions on her behalf, you will no longer have to pay support. You have a similar result if a judge terminates your parental rights.

A stepparent who divorces a child's legal guardian typically does not have to pay child support, although he may have alimony obligations. However, if you adopted your stepchild and then get divorced, you may owe child support just as a biological parent would.