Government Efforts to Collect Child Support

Both the federal and state governments are now aggressively involved in enforcing child support orders.

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Both the federal and state governments are now aggressively involved in enforcing child support orders. States are required to help parents collect child support, even if the parent who owes money has moved out of state.

Read on to learn how governments track people who owe child support, and some of the methods they use to force you to pay up.

Government Databases and Registries to Track Parents Owing Child Support 

Extensive database and registry systems track parents who owe child support. Information is shared among states and between the states and the federal government. For example:

  • Employers must report all new hires to their state’s child support enforcement agency. The agency forwards this information to the National Directory of New Hires, a centralized registry that matches employee names with the names of parents who owe child support. The National Directory sets up income-withholding orders for delinquent parents.
  • States must ask for the Social Security numbers of both parents when a child is born and must pass those numbers on to the state agency that enforces child support.
  • Judges sometimes order noncustodial parents to pay child support to the state child support enforcement agency, which in turn pays the custodial parent. This method is often used when the noncustodial parent is without regular income (perhaps self-employed) or when parents agree to waive the automatic wage withholding.

Automatic Wage Withholding

Federal law requires that all states have an automatic income withholding program for the collection of child support. If 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. (To learn more, see Automatic Wage Withholding for Child Support.)

Interception of Your Income Tax Refund

If you owe more than $500 in child support and the custodial parent has contacted the state’s child support enforcement agency for help, or if you owe $150 and the custodial parent receives welfare, the child support enforcement agency in the state where the custodial parent lives will notify the U.S. Department of the Treasury. The IRS will then take money out of your tax refund to pay the amount due, or at least part of it.

If you are now married to someone other than the custodial parent to whom you owe support, the IRS will take the refund from your joint income tax return. In some states, however, your new spouse won’t be liable for your child support debts. If you live in one of those states, your new spouse can request a reimbursement from the IRS by completing Form 8379, Injured Spouse Claim and Allocation, and filing it with Form 1040 or 1040A. You can obtain a copy of this form and directions for filling it out at the IRS website at www.irs.gov.

States that impose income taxes also intercept tax refunds to satisfy child support debts.

Public Humiliation

Congress has encouraged states to come up with creative ways to embarrass parents into paying the child support they owe. One method used nationwide by an association of state child support enforcement agencies is the publishing of “most wanted” lists of parents who owe child support.

In some areas, for example, the family court lists the names of parents not paying child support on cable television 300 times a week and in a full-page newspaper advertisement once a month. One county using this technique claims to have located over 50% of the parents owing support. Similarly, the Iowa attorney general reports that 90% of missing fathers who owe child support have been located through the state’s “most wanted” poster program.

If your name is included on a most wanted list, the only way to get your name removed is to turn yourself in and begin paying your child support. You’ll be ordered to make monthly payments henceforth, your wages will be attached, and the court will take steps to see that you pay your back child support. But that may be better than having this kind of notoriety in your community.

Denial of State License or U.S. Passport

In most states, parents with child support arrears will be denied an original or renewed driver’s or professional license (for doctors, lawyers, contractors, and the like) and, if they owe $2,500 or more, may be denied a U.S. passport. You are also at risk of having your current driver’s license suspended.

Your Case May Be Sent to the State Enforcement Agency

If the custodial parent receives welfare, the state’s child support enforcement agency is required to help collect unpaid child support. For a $25 fee, the agency will also help any parent trying to collect child support. If you move out of state while you owe unpaid child support, state laws require that when the custodial parent contacts the local state child support enforcement agency, that agency must contact the agency in the state where you now live. The agency in your state then contacts you and orders you to pay the child support. If you pay that money to the state agency in your state, the agency will send it to the agency in the state where the custodial parent lives.

When the state agency is involved, you’ll receive a notice requesting that you attend a conference. The purpose of the conference is to establish your income and expenses, including support for other children, and how much you should pay. The agency is likely to propose that you pay a lot. You should emphasize, truthfully, your other necessary expenses -- food, shelter, clothing, other kids, and the like. Bring receipts, bills, and all other evidence of your monthly costs. If you don’t show up, the agency may initiate criminal charges against you for failure to appear.

Criminal Prosecution

In many states, it’s a misdemeanor to fail to provide support for your child. While criminal prosecution isn’t all that likely, the involvement of a county attorney increases the possibility. Also, if you have violated a judge’s order enough times, the judge may report you to prosecutors.

In addition, under the federal Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 (also known as the Deadbeat Dad Law), failure to pay support for a child living in another state is a federal crime. To be prosecuted under this law, the parent must have owed more than $5,000 for more than a year, and the failure to pay must be deliberate.

To learn about the many ways custodial parents can collect child support (including wage garnishment, seeking content of court orders, and more) see our Enforcing Child Support Obligations area.

This is an excerpt from Nolo's Solve Your Money Troubles: Debt, Credit & Bankruptcy, by Margaret Reiter and Robin Leonard.

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