Getting Your Spouse to Pay Child Support FAQ

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

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

If you think your ex has moved out of state, you or the D.A. can use legal procedures to locate your ex and seek payment. Federal and state parent locator services can also assist in locating missing parents.

If you know that your ex-spouse lives in a different state, you can use the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA) to enforce a child support order. Under this law, you have a number of options. You can:

  • ask a court in your state to force your former spouse to pay (but your state must have legal authority over your ex, called "personal jurisdiction")
  • ask a court in your state to forward the child support order to a court in the state where your ex lives, and have that state's courts and agencies enforce the order
  • file an enforcement request directly in the state where your ex lives, or
  • forward the order to your ex's employer, and ask the employer to withhold the support amounts from your ex's paycheck.

The Child Support Recovery Act (CSRA) of 1992 makes it a federal crime for a parent to willfully refuse to make support payments to a parent who lives in another state. However, this statute has been challenged on constitutional grounds (as being beyond the authority of Congress), and its enforcement is inconsistent. Possibly as a remedy to CSRA, Congress passed the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act of 1998, making it a felony to willfully refuse to pay out-of-state child support.

What happens if a parent falls behind on child support payments?

When a person does not make child support payments on time, the overdue payments are called "arrearages," and the person is "in arrears" on payments. Judges have become very strict about enforcing child support orders and collecting arrearages. While the person in arrears can ask a judge to reduce the amount of future payments, the judge will usually insist that the arrearage be paid in full, either immediately or in installments.

Can I be excused from the child support debt I accumulated while I was temporarily out of work?

Most states don't allow judges to retroactively change child support obligations. This means if a person becomes unable to pay support, the payor may petition the court for a reduction, but, even if the court reduces future payments, it will most likely hold the parent liable for the full amount of support owed at the time. For this reason, if a parent with a child support obligation starts falling behind because the parent's income has decreased or debts have increased, the parent should immediately seek a temporary modification.

For example, let's say Joe has a child support obligation of $300 per month. Joe is laid off, and six months pass before he finds another one with comparable pay. Although Joe could have sought a temporary decrease on the grounds of diminished income, he lets the matter slide and fails to pay any support during the six-month period. Joe's ex-wife later brings Joe into court to collect the $1,800 arrearage. Joe cannot obtain a retroactive ruling excusing him from making the earlier payments.

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

Back child support cannot be canceled in a bankruptcy proceeding. Once it is owed, it will always be owed, until paid. This rule is based on public policy and is meant to discourage those obligated to pay child support from using bankruptcy to get out of having to pay.

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

Probably not. Judges will only enforce orders beginning from the date the request is filed with the court. This is why it's very important to file for child support as soon as you and your partner separate.

My spouse is in charge of our household finances but barely provides me with 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 live apart. Courts cannot, and will not, intervene in a family's lifestyle unless the children are being abused or neglected. Parents aren't legally obligated to provide material goods other than food, shelter, clothing, and education (up to a state's required age of attendance).

Turn to Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow, for further information on enforcing child support payments.

My ex-spouse is refusing to pay court-ordered child support. How can I have the order enforced?

Under the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984, district attorneys (D.A.s) or state's attorneys must help you collect child support. Sometimes this means that the D.A. will serve papers requiring that your ex meet with the D.A. to arrange a payment schedule. These papers usually say that, if the ex refuses to meet or pay, jail time could result.

Federal laws allow the interception of tax refunds to enforce child support orders. Other methods of enforcement include wage attachments, seizing property, suspending the business or occupational license of a payer who is behind on child support, or -- in some states -- revoking the payer's driver's license. Your state's D.A. may employ any one of these methods in an attempt to help you collect from your ex. In addition, the U.S. Department of State may refuse to issue a passport to anyone who owes more than $2,500 in child support.

As a last resort, the court that has issued the child support order can hold your ex in contempt and, in the absence of a reasonable explanation for the delinquency, impose a jail term. This contempt power is exercised sparingly in most states, primarily because most judges would rather keep the payer out of jail where there's still a chance your ex will earn the income necessary to pay the support.

Almost every state has an agency that can help you with child support enforcement at little or no cost to you. For a list of links to these agencies, visit the National Child Support Enforcement Association at

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