If you find yourself in a situation where you can’t afford child support payments, you definitely are not alone.
During its last annual report to Congress in 2019, the Office of Child Support Enforcement reported that 10.7 million cases are in arrears with a cumulative total of nearly $118.1 billion owed. That’s over 600,000 fewer cases than in 2014, and it marked the fifth consecutive year the number of cases declined. However, the amount owed increased by $1.7 billion during that span.
Not all the cases in arrears and billions of dollars owed are because of “deadbeat dads,” the popular name given those who have the resources, but choose to ignore court orders to pay child support.
Many child support problems are the result of parents falling behind because of circumstances beyond their control such as a lost job, medical emergency or just not enough income to handle the financial load every month.
In cases like these, it may seem logical to reach out to the co-parent and make an informal agreement to resolve the problem, until the circumstances change, but that would be the WRONG step to take! Child support payments are court-ordered for a reason and any adjustments should be made only with the agreement of the courts.
Judges weigh income, age and earning capacity in determining how much child support to award. If there is a significant change in any of those categories, judges are the ones responsible for re-setting monthly child payments.
What Are the Consequences of Not Paying Child Support?
Child support is a legal obligation and an order of the court. When you fail to meet legal obligations or find yourself in contempt of a court order, the consequences are predictably unpleasant.
What happens if you do not pay child support:
- You could lose your driver’s license. All 50 states have legislation that will result in the suspension of your driver’s license. Some states even extend the suspension to professional and occupational licensing as well as hunting and fishing licensing.
- Your pay can be garnished. The garnishment will either be the entire court-ordered amount or up to 65% of what is determined to be your disposable income amount (whichever is less).
- Your tax return can be seized. This is usually done in conjunction with pay garnishment and can even trigger the denial of a passport should you apply for one.
- Property Liens. This means that if you intend to sell land, homes, or vehicles, liens against them will have to be paid before closing for the title to be cleared and the sale to be final.
- Your credit can take a dive. Child support enforcement agencies are free to provide information to credit bureaus on any parent with a legitimate child support obligation. That means your credit score is in for a dive.
- Jail time. Every court has an option for incarcerating those found in “contempt of court.” Child support is a court order, and sometimes a judge may order the defendant, or obligor in the case of child support, to be jailed for willful nonpayment.
- Felony Charges. If you fall more than $10,000 behind, it could mean a felony if you haven’t made attempts to pay. At that point, the state may decide to file felony charges and offenders could face fines and sentencing of up to two years in prison
How to Stop Paying Child Support Legally
There is a legal process for stopping child support payments, but it’s not easy. Courts operate under the theory that a child’s best interest is served when they receive predictable financial payments. Convincing them otherwise requires documented evidence that your economic situation has changed and a good argument that you need some help, even if it’s just temporary.
You or lawyer will have to go to the courthouse and file the necessary paperwork seeking a modification. This usually is a simple fill-in-the-blanks sheet. If you’re doing this yourself, you might be able to ask if the court has staff members that can assist with the filing process. However, because family law is tricky, it usually is in your best interest to have a lawyer representing you. If you can’t afford one, visit the local Legal Aid Society and ask for help.
Once your case is filed and you have a court date set to hear your petition for modifying child support payments, you must notify your co-parent. At the hearing, you will present your case for stopping child support payments, or at least modifying them to an affordable level.
When you go to court to ask for relief, be sure to have documented evidence that demonstrates why you are unable to afford your monthly obligation. That would include termination papers if you lost a job; paycheck stubs if your pay has been cut; medical receipts if your health has changed; proof of increased expenses because of other bills you owe; and anything else you can put your hands on to show you are in trouble, not running from trouble.
You should be aware that a 2016 update to the Child Support Enforcement Offices regulations that govern child support, requires that there be a “substantial change in circumstances” in order to modify child support.
Any attempt to ignore your obligation to pay or an attempt to come to an “informal agreement” with your co-parent is viewed unfavorably by courts. It could result in the custodian parent filing a contempt action that would be extremely costly. You would be liable for more court costs and lawyer’s fees to re-settle your case.
There is good news, though, and it’s that there are programs to help pay child support and get yourself back on track. There’s one thing you can do that will surely not help, however, and that is to do nothing.
So, what can you do?
Financial Assistance & Programs to Help Fathers Pay Child Support
Studies show that fathers recognize their obligations to financially support their children but two circumstances – lack of stable employment and incarceration – often make it difficult for them to fulfill that obligation.
Fathers make up 80% of the 12.6 million noncustodial parents in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau study released in May 2020. A 2016 study for the Department of Health and Human Services showed that almost three-fourths of fathers with child support payments under the national median of $364 per month, were unemployed or in part-time or temporary jobs.
Another 400,000 are in jail and have child support cases ahead of them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
So, creating job opportunities and training fathers how to advance in the workplace became a focus for government-sponsored programs run by the Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE).
The federal government funds 91 such programs in 30 states plus the District of Columbia. Not all the programs are statewide. You can use their map tool to see if there is one in your state.
Some of the larger funded programs include Office of Head Start; Father Engagement Birth To Five; and Strong Families Initiative.
The Father Engagement Birth To Five program was born out of the Head Start program. It attempts to get (and keep) fathers engaged in their child’s development at an early age.
The Strong Families Initiative seeks similar results, but focuses on families in public housing and multi-family housing projects. Family-friendly events are staged in those neighborhoods promoting economic opportunity and self-sufficiency for residents.
These programs helped connect low-income, noncustodial parents to new career paths with increased wages and thus, the ability to provide more support for their children. Getting noncustodial parents connected with jobs is a key to regular support payments.
What to Do in a Financial Hardship
Today, the Federal Reserve estimates about 4 in 10 Americans couldn’t afford a $400 emergency without adding it to their credit card balance or borrowing from friends or family. A full 12% of adults would have no way to pay it. The University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center found that 51% of working adults would need to access savings to cover necessities if they missed more than one paycheck.
If this is your situation, you need to take your case in front of a judge for a review and modification of your child support as soon as possible. Only a judge can change the amount you pay.
Payments can’t be changed retroactively, which means you still owe all back payments. That’s why it’s urgent to file a petition in the same court that ordered your current child support payments to request a modification.
This may seem overwhelming, but there are ways to get help. Consider getting help from a pro-bono Legal Advocacy Group to help you. Contact your local United Way or other charity groups or search online for pro-bono legal services.
Each municipality typically has a Legal Aid center as well to offer free legal advice to residents, and many of the courts have a Legal Resource center that can provide the petition forms you need for the actual filing, while they can’t offer you legal advice, they can help you get the forms you need. Many forms are available online as well. This isn’t something that can wait.
Alternately, you can contact Child Support Enforcement in the state where your child support is owed. They can help walk you through the process and may be able to put you in touch with the legal resources you need.
Housing also is a significant issue: 21.5% of noncustodial parents are eligible for rental assistance such as public housing or Section 8 housing voucher programs, but only 4.7% receive it, the Department of Health and Human Services reported in January 2021. If this describes your situation, this could be an important financial lifeline. To find out where to apply, visit the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Public Housing Agency website.
What to Do When You’re Already Behind on Child Support
Contact the Office of Child Support Enforcement in your state to let them know you’re working on a getting a hearing review of your current child support amount, and that you’re actively working on resolving the issue.
Once you have a new child support amount, contact them again and discuss a payment plan and options to help you deal with your back, child support. Some states will offer to waive the interest on back child support or will negotiate a debt settlement after a year of consistent payment of your current court-ordered child support. If you’re proactive, there are options available to lessen the burden and help you pay down the debt. Ultimately, that’s the outcome they’d like to see, just like any other creditor.
Most people behind on child support are behind in relatively small amounts. Only 20% of those in arrears owe more than $20,000, but that group represents nearly 65% of the child unpaid child support obligation. Data suggests that this usually happens when the parent is incarcerated, because the obligation to pay child support doesn’t stop even when the ability to earn an income does. That’s an issue that’s been at the center of attempted reform for years.
It does take time and patience, just like dealing with any other debt, but it can be done.
Talk to Your Co-Parent and Explain Your Situation
You’ll have to let your co-parent know what’s going on in at least some detail because it’s going to affect your co-parent’s budget as well. The court-ordered child support your co-parent receives is part of the income that goes into the care of your child. It’s important that a change in that income be planned for so that your child’s needs are met. While your co-parent cannot legally waive or release you of the court-ordered child support obligation (only a judge can change the order), you may be able to work out an arrangement if you need short-term leniency.
If the issue is a larger financial hardship than making your payments for the next few months, it will become a matter of urgency to obtain a legal modification to your court-ordered child support. Giving your co-parent a heads up is to your advantage. Both of you will need to provide financial documentation during the review for modification process and may prevent your co-parent from initiating adverse legal action since a court date will be necessary (more on this later).
Whichever is the case, you do need to pay as much as you can, even if it’s less than the ordered amount. This shows a good-faith effort to a judge, prevents larger legal trouble, and limits the amount you fall in arrears (and still be responsible for paying). All of this will help you in the long term.
About The Author
Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].
- Zill, N. (2020, June 16) Facts About Custodial and Non-Custodial Fathers in the U.S. Retrieved from https://ifstudies.org/blog/facts-about-custodial-and-non-custodial-fathers-in-the-us
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- Antelo, L.; Benton, A.; Chadwick, L.; and Vandenberg, A. (2021, January) Housing Instability for Noncustodial Parents: Policy Considerations. Retrieved from https://aspe.hhs.gov/system/files/pdf/264831/housing-instability-for-np.pdf
- N.A. (2019, May) Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2019-economic-well-being-of-us-households-in-2018-dealing-with-unexpected-expenses.htm