What Are Child Support Arrears?

Learn what happens when parents don't pay child support, how to get help collecting unpaid support from your child's other parent, and what you can do if you owe child support arrears but can't pay.

By , Attorney · Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law School

All parents are legally responsible for supporting their children, with or without a court order. But once a court has ordered one parent to pay a certain amount of child support, failing to keep up with those payments could lead to serious and financial legal consequences. The other parent can get help from the state to collect the money. And if those steps don't work, authorities have ways to punish deadbeat parents until they pay what they owe.

What Are Child Support Arrears?

"Child support arrears" is just a fancy name for unpaid or past-due child support. When a parent gets behind with court-ordered child support—or stops paying completely—the unpaid amounts add up (or "accrue") and become child support arrears (sometimes called "arrearages"). Because support arrears don't accrue until there's an actual child support order in place, any parent who wants to collect past-due support needs to have an official order that establishes who must pay and how much. When parents get divorced, the divorce judgment should include an order like this. When married parents are separated, one of them may ask the court for a temporary child support order until the divorce is final. If the parents were never married, the one with the child (almost always the mother) will also need to legally establish parentage (traditionally paternity) along with a child support order.

Parents may have an agreement about child support, but most state laws require that a judge approve and include the agreement in a court order before it can be enforced. If you don't yet have a child-support order, you might be able to get help with that from your state's child support agency (more on that below).

What's the Difference Between Child Support Arrears and Retroactive Child Support?

Sometimes, judges will order retroactive child support—requiring a parent to pay support for a period of time before the court order was in place. (But most states have limits on how far back a retroactive support order may go.)

The typical situations when judges order retroactive child support include:

  • An unmarried mother wasn't able to establish the legal paternity of her child at first.
  • It took a long time for a parent's request for child support to work its way through the court system.
  • A judge increases the amount of child support that was in a previous order and makes the higher amount take effect on an earlier date.

If you've been ordered to pay retroactive child support (often under a payment schedule), it won't be considered child support arrears until you get behind on the payments.

How to Collect Child Support Arrears

If your child's other parent owes you past-due child support, you should be able to get help from the child support agency in your state. (You can find links and phone numbers for state and tribal agencies here, along with information on applying for assistance.)

The specific procedures and rules vary from state to state, but your state or local child support agency can provide a range of services, such as:

  • finding the other parent, if you don't know where they are
  • establishing parentage when that's necessary
  • helping you get a child-support order if you don't already have one, and
  • taking steps to enforce the order and collect past-due support.

Depending on the rules in your state and the circumstances in your case, the child support agencies have many ways to collect past due child support, including:

  • having an amount withheld (or "garnished") from the other parent's wages or from other kinds of income, like workers' compensation benefits, some disability benefits, and settlements from lawsuits or insurance companies
  • reporting the arrears to federal and state tax authorities, who will then take (or "intercept") all or part of the other parent's tax refunds; and
  • freezing bank accounts or seizing other property.

Child support agencies also have other legal tools meant to make life difficult for deadbeat parents who owe a certain amount of past-due support, such as revoking or suspending their driver's license or other business or professional licenses.

Enforcing Child Support Arrears in Court

If none of the child-support agency's collection efforts work, you may need to ask a judge to enforce your child support order by issuing a judgment for child support arrears. The child support agency will often help with this step. If you have a lawyer, the attorney may represent you in the court proceedings (in coordination with the agency, if that agency has been involved in collection efforts).

In most cases, if you win the enforcement action in court, you'll be entitled to collect payment of your attorney's fees and costs from the deadbeat parent, along with the child support arrearages and any interest due under state law. In extreme situations, such as where a parent refuses to pay the judgment without justification, that parent might be charged with contempt of court, which can result in fine or even jail time.

What If the Deadbeat Parent Is in Another State or Country?

Child support agencies (and courts) may enforce child-support orders across state lines, in coordination with the parallel agencies and/or courts in the other state. Most of the collection efforts will be the same across the United States.

In fact, federal law provides another possible tool for going after deadbeat parents who live in a different state than their child—or who've crossed state lines in order to avoid paying support. It's a federal crime for a parent to deliberately refuse to pay court-ordered support for a child in another state for more than a year (or when the arrears total more than $5,000). In addition to paying a fine and/or spending time in federal prison, a guilty parent will have to pay the full amount of arrearages as restitution.

There are fewer enforcement options available when deadbeat parents are in another country. However, the U.S. State Department could revoke their passports or, in some cases, even arrest them when they try to reenter the United States.

What Should You Do If You Can't Pay Child Support or Are Behind on Payments?

If you're behind on the child support payments you owe, it might be a good idea to reach out to your child's other parent, as long as you have a decent working relationship. The two of you might be able come to an agreement on a payment schedule to catch up with the arrearages. If you aren't sure how much you owe in past-due support, the local child support agency can figure that out for you.

However, you should know that you can't automatically get out your obligation to pay child support just because you've lost a job or other earnings, have been hit with unexpected medical bills, or even have filed for bankruptcy. If you're not able to pay the amount of court-ordered child support because your circumstances have changed, you'll need to request a modification of the support order.

How Can You Request a Change in the Amount of Child Support?

Parents who owe child support can generally turn to the local child support agency for help with seeking a support modification. Generally, this requires filing a petition or motion in court, but your state might have slightly different procedures. For instance, Ohio's child support enforcement agency may conduct an administrative review of modification requests in some cases.

In all states, parents who want to change the amount of court-ordered child support must demonstrate that they have experienced a substantial change in their circumstances since the order was issued. (This requirement also applies when the parents who receive child support want to have the payments increased.) Judges will also consider whether the change was part of a deliberate attempt to avoid paying support. For instance, judges may reduce support when the paying parents were laid off, but not when parents voluntarily quit work to avoid paying child support.

Can Child Support Arrearages Be Wiped Out?

Even if a judge lowered the amount of your current child support obligation, in most cases the change will apply only from when you filed the modification request. You will still be legally responsible for paying any child support arrears. And because arrearages are the unpaid amounts of past support, you still have to pay them off even after you child has turned 18. If you want to contest the amount of arrearages that the agency or court says you owe, you will need to provide evidence (such as bank statements and pay stubs showing withheld support) to back up your claims.

Although you can wipe out many types of debts in bankruptcy, that's not the case with child support debts, including arrearages. However, filing for bankruptcy could help you pay off your past-due child support by getting rid of other debts. It could also make it easier for the other parent to collect the child-support arrears. (Learn more about how Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy affects enforcement of child support.)

In some extreme circumstances, such as a terminal illness or catastrophic accident, a judge may waive or reduce the amount you owe for child support arrearages. In most cases, however a judge won't eliminate child support arrearages but instead might come up with a payment plan to let you pay off the balance over time.

Once you've finishing paying off your child support arrears, you should ask the court or the child support agency to dismiss or close your case.

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