The federal Family Support Act requires all states to have an automatic income withholding program that seizes part of a parent’s wages to pay child support orders that were made or modified on or after January 1, 1994. For pre-1994 child support orders, the court may order income withholding if the custodial parent goes back to court to complain that you are in arrears.
The automatic income withholding provisions also apply to orders that combine child support and alimony, but not to orders for alimony only. If income withholding is ordered in one state (for example, where your child lives), but you live in another, the state you live in will enforce the income withholding.
The income withholding is automatic unless the parties agree otherwise (for example, the custodial parent agrees not to serve the order on your employer, as long as you pay her directly) or unless there is good cause not to require immediate withholding. For example, in some states, if the parent has a reliable history of paying child support, income withholding is not automatic.
An automatic income withholding order works quite simply. After a court orders you to pay child support, the custodial parent sends a copy of the court order to your employer. Each pay period, your employer withholds a portion of your pay and sends it to the custodial parent or to the state agency that distributes child support.
If you don’t receive regular wages but do have a regular source of income, such as income from a pension, a retirement fund, an annuity, unemployment compensation, or other public benefits, the court can order the child support withheld from that income. Instead of forwarding a copy of the order and the custodial parent’s name and address to an employer, the court sends the information to the retirement plan administrator or public agency from which you receive your benefits.
If your income is from Social Security or a private pension governed by either ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) or REA (Retirement Equity Act), the administrator might not honor the court order. This is because Social Security and many private pensions have “antialienation” clauses that prohibit the administrator from turning over the funds to anyone other than the beneficiary (you).
To learn about other ways the government or your child's other parent can collect child support from you, see our Enforcement of Child Support Obligations area.
This is an excerpt from Nolo's Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy, by Margaret Reiter and Robin Leonard.