Getting Your Spouse to Pay Child Support

Get tips for collecting child support payments when one parent fails to meet support obligations.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

What Are Child Support Arrears?

Parents who fall behind on child support begin accruing "arrearages," and your payment status then becomes "in arrears," which may trigger a court investigation. Regardless of the reason, if you're not paying court-ordered child support, you'll probably get a notice in the mail asking you to appear in front of the judge to explain why you're not paying.

Sometimes you can bypass a conversation with the judge by calling your caseworker to explain the situation and to plan on how you'll pay what's past-due. Some courts require parents to pay arrearages in full, but others allow parents to make installment payments on the arrearages in addition to the court-ordered payments.

If the arrearages are significant, you could lose your driver's and other professional licenses, and the state could garnish your tax refund, or you could go to jail.

How to Enforce a Child Support Order

The Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984 requires district or state's attorneys to help custodial parents collect child support from non-paying parents. Sometimes, the district attorney will issue a letter to the noncustodial parent requesting a hearing to arrange a payment schedule. If your ex-spouse ignores the hearing request, it could result in a jail sentence.

If you aren't receiving child support, you can request assistance from your local child support enforcement agency, which may do any of the following to collect past-due support:

  • intercept your ex-spouse's federal tax refund
  • issue a garnishment request to your ex-spouse's employer
  • seize property, or
  • revoke your ex-spouse's professional or driver's licenses.

As a last resort, the court that issued the child support order can hold your ex in contempt, which requires that parent to attend a court hearing and provide a reasonable explanation for non-payment. If the judge isn't satisfied with the reasoning, or if the parent refuses to attend, the court may impose a jail term. Judges may hesitate to use contempt power because it's generally better to keep the parent out of jail so that parents can continue earning income and paying support.

The UIFSA allows the custodial parent to bring an enforcement action in either the state where the child support order originated or the state where the noncustodial parent lives. If you're having trouble getting your court-ordered child support payments, contact a family law attorney to begin the process of enforcement through your local court.

Punishments for Not Paying Child Support

Failing to pay child support is a state and federal crime with no state boundaries, so if you're considering ignoring your child support order, you may want to reconsider. The penalties for non-payment of child support vary in each state but generally include license restrictions, fines, and jail or prison.

Child Support FAQs

My ex-husband moved out of state. How can I force him to continue to make child support payments?

The best first step is to determine your ex-husband's home address. If you need assistance finding your ex, you can hire a private investigator. You can also contact your local Office of Child Support Services (also known as Department of Child Support Services) and request assistance using the agency's parent locator service. Fortunately, state child support agencies have access to parents' new hire data, unemployment insurance, criminal records, and driving records. Once you find your ex-husband, you can begin the process of enforcing your current child support order.

All 50 states have adopted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA), which helps custodial parents establish, modify, and enforce child support orders across state lines. The Act makes it difficult for a child support payor to ignore a state's order just because that parent moved to a new location—all states must enforce a child support order, regardless of where the court order originated.

If you know where your ex-spouse is employed, you can ask the court to send a child support garnishment request to the employer. The UIFSA requires employers to honor the garnishment request, regardless of the state that issued the garnishment.

Will the court excuse me from the child support debt I accumulated while I was temporarily out of work?

Most states don't allow you to modify child support retroactively. If the child support payor becomes unemployed or otherwise unable to meet a child support obligation, that payor can request a child support modification with the court. However, if the judge grants your request and reduces your support amount, it will only change your future child support obligation. If a noncustodial parent's income decreases or stops, that parent needs to apply for a child support modification immediately to avoid arrearages.

For information related to resources, unemployment, and child support during the COVID-19 crisis, click here.

I just filed for bankruptcy. Can I discharge my child support arrearages?

No. Bankruptcy laws prohibit courts from discharging any child support arrearages in a parent's bankruptcy proceeding. The only way to eliminate child support arrearages is for the parent to pay the debt in full.

My spouse and I separated one year ago. Can I file for child support now and get an order that covers the last year?

Probably not. Child support is not retroactive. Parents need to file for child support as soon as they separate and need assistance. Courts do not grant retroactive support beyond the date one parent filed a motion for child support.

My spouse oversees our household finances but barely provides enough to keep the cars running and buy food and clothes for the kids. Can I sue for child support?

Not unless you and your spouse have separated. Courts won't intervene in a family's lifestyle unless the children are being abused or neglected. If you're married and need additional support from your spouse, you may want to consider therapy to discuss your needs. If you decide to separate and live apart, you can request temporary child support from the court.

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