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How To Enforce Child Support Orders

You’ve gone through the Do-It-Yourself divorce process and the court has approved your child support and custody agreement. Your ex-spouse was good about making the monthly child support payments, but then over time, the payments became sporadic and, now, no payments are being made. Well, you are not alone.

The Office of the Administration for Children and Families estimates that of all families owed child support, roughly half receive the full amount due, and a quarter receives nothing at all. While it is a frustrating process when your ex is determined not to pay child support or has few assets and claims he/she can't pay, there are enforcement methods in place to help collect regular and past-due payments. Understanding the various methods that are out there will help you to be better informed when you approach the state child enforcement agency for assistance in getting your regular monthly child support payments, getting back child support owed to you, and/or ensuring you are receiving your full monthly amount.

What Are These Enforcement Methods?

Federal Government Efforts to Collect Child Support.

Government at the federal level is involved in enforcing child support orders through the following programs:

Automatic Income Withholding for Child Support.

Income withholding is the court-ordered deduction of a specific amount from a parent’s income for payment of child support. The court uses an Income Withholding Order (IWO) to notify the child support payor’s employer that child support must be deducted from the payor’s wages. Once an employer receives the IWO, the specific amount of child support is deducted from each pay period and sent to the state disbursement unit (SDU), which then forwards the payment to the parent receiving the support.

In some states, there are alternatives to income withholding. The court or state agency may allow an exception by deciding there is “good cause” to not order income withholding. “Good cause” means the parties must show that income withholding would not be in the best interests of the child and the person making support payments has made all previous payments on time.

In Oregon, for example, parents may request an exception to income withholding once each of the following conditions has been met:

However, if the parents receive the exception, and the parent paying child support falls behind in paying support, income withholding will begin again and no further exceptions are granted.

The Federal Wage Garnishment Law.

A wage garnishment is usually a court order, through which a portion of a person’s earnings is legally withheld by an employer for the payment of a debt. The garnishment law allows up to 50% of a worker’s disposable earnings to be garnished for these purposes if the worker is supporting another spouse or child, or up to 60% if the worker is not. An additional 5% may be garnished for support payments more than 12 weeks in arrears.

Use of Innovative Technology.

The use of innovative technology helps child support enforcement programs at the state level to: 1) expedite case processing, 2) encourage a focus on difficult-to-collect cases, and 3) target cases based on federal performance measures. Because the 1998 federal Child Support Performance and Incentive Act provides federal incentive payments to states based on performance related to efforts to enforce child support orders, many states have put effort into automating and improving systems meant to help with the collection of current and past-due child support. The state of Pennsylvania has launched a mass texting program to replace their outdated and more expensive voice response system. The automated text message system sends reminders for appointments, missed payments and other events related to child support enforcement. Statewide, the messages alone have resulted in a more than 30% increase in collection success rate. Since implementing the text message approach, Pennsylvania has increased monthly child support collections by $1 million per month.

Intercepting Insurance Settlements.

The Child Support Lien Network is a database of parents who are delinquent in their child support obligations. The database is updated monthly by the states who participate. The database is used to intercept insurance settlements to pay delinquent child support obligations owed to children and families. Currently, the network has 31 states participating: Arizona, Alaska, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia.

Property Liens.

The state child support agency may file a lien for unpaid child support on real and personal property, including houses and vehicles. Each state has their own laws outlining the procedures for filing liens. Liens can last for a number of years, depending on state law, and generally can be renewed for an indefinite number of additional periods, as long as there is still unpaid child support owed. Some states have given priority to child support liens over most other liens. If the parent who owns child support tries to sell real property, and that property has a child support lien attached to it, the lien shows up when potential buyers, title companies and lenders do a title search on the property. The lien remains on the property until the amount owed is paid, so the lien must be paid before there is a clear title for that property.

Seizure of Assets and Benefits.

Child support agencies can seize assets and benefits as another way to enforce child support obligations. Such assets and benefits include accounts held at banks, credit unions, trust companies, and mutual funds.

Driver's License Suspension.

States have authority to withhold, suspend, or restrict driver’s licenses, professional and occupational licenses, and recreational and sporting licenses of parents who haven’t met their child support obligations. If a noncustodial parents has failed to comply with subpoenas or warrants issued as a result of a child support proceeding can also have licenses suspended or restricted. Certain states have hardship exemptions that help parents reinstate their licenses if they meet certain payment requirements. These hardship exemptions include:

Credit Bureau Reporting.

States can use credit bureau reporting as another tool to enforce child support obligations. If a parent owes back child support, the state child support enforcement agency can report this to any of the credit bureaus. Each state agency has its own criteria that must be met in order to report the back child support to credit bureaus. In Minnesota, for example, in order for the state enforcement agency to report to the credit bureau, the child support must be court-ordered, and the amount of back child-support owed must be three times the normal monthly child-support amount. Typically, if the agency is going to report to the credit bureaus, they will notify the parent owing child back support by sending them a “Notice of Intent to Report Arrears” (or similar document, depending on the state). The parent owing the back child support will have a certain amount of time to contest the state’s intent to report to the credit bureaus. If the parent contests the intended reporting, the state will grant or deny an administrative review of the case. If the parent doesn’t contest the reporting, the state will go ahead and report the arrears to the credit bureaus, resulting in a negative entry on the parent’s credit report.

Serving Time in Jail.

When the state child support enforcement division has enough information to reasonably assert that a parent is willfully not paying child support, the state enforcement division can file a request for a hearing with the court. The non-paying parent must receive notice of the hearing and a copy of the allegations made against them alleging willful non-payment (the parent has the ability to pay but just refuses to do so).

If a court is able to make a determination at the hearing that a parent is intentionally behind in their child support payments, the court can rule that parent is in contempt of court. The court can then sentence the parent to reasonable jail time, typically up to a maximum of 180 days. A ruling that the parent is in contempt of court is not a criminal conviction, but for the parent deciding not to pay child support, the idea of serving time in jail is usually a good incentive for making timely child support payments.

Updated: March 2015

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