Child support is a term that is often found in many family law and divorce cases. It refers to the monthly payments that are made from one parent (usually the non-custodial parent) to the other parent (i.e., the custodial parent) for the purposes of raising their child. As such, the money from a child support payment may only be used to pay for items that affect the health and well-being of the child, such as food, clothing, medical needs, and so on.
The main reason that child support may be ordered is to ensure that the child does not suffer the financial impact that can result from their parents’ separation or divorce. In other words, child support allows the child to continue receiving economic benefits as if they were still living in a two-parent household. Child support is also court-ordered because it is the law—a biological parent is legally obligated to support their child.
For example, suppose you had a child with another person. The three of you lived together as a family for several years, but then your partner decided to move out. Your partner, assuming they are a biological parent, would then have a duty to send monthly child support payments to you, so that you could raise the child.
On the other hand, if you were the party who moved out and the other parent is the party responsible for raising your child, then you would be the one who would need to make child support payments to them every month. It does not matter whether you and the other parent were married, just so long as you both had a child together and are considered the parents of that child.
The amount of child support that a parent may need to pay each month will be set by state guidelines and determined by the court. The court may adjust the number provided by state child support statutes by evaluating certain factors, such as whether the child has special needs or how many children require child support. Child support payments are generally terminated once the child reaches the age of majority in their state.
What Happens If I Fail to Pay Child Support?
Failing to pay child support can have severe consequences. Courts take this responsibility very seriously and will typically give high priority to issues concerning missed child support payments.
The first thing that can happen when a non-custodial parent misses a child support payment or does not pay the full amount is that the custodial parent can enlist the help of the court and state to have the child support order enforced. The type of punishment for not paying child support will usually depend on the reasons that a parent failed to pay child support and also on how far behind they are in missed payments.
Some common punishments that a court may issue for failing to pay child support include:
- The court may order that a lien be placed against the parent’s property until the payments have been made. If the parent fails to do so before the lien period expires, then the property that the lien was placed on can be seized.
- The missing payments may be reported to credit agencies as debt, which in turn, could affect that parent’s credit score.
- The court may revoke or suspend the parent’s driving privileges and recreational licenses. In a worst case scenario, the court may even revoke a professional license like one issued by a bar association or medical board.
- The other parent may obtain a wage garnishment order from the court. A wage garnishment order will inform an employer to withhold a certain portion of a person’s paycheck until the amount of money they owe is paid off.
- A court may also hold an indebted parent in contempt of court or issue a warrant for their arrest.
In addition, if the court issues a warrant for the indebted parent’s arrest, then they may also face criminal penalties for not paying child support, including having to pay criminal fines and potentially receiving a jail or prison sentence.
What Can I Do If I Can’t Make My Child Support Payments?
Parents should strive to pay child support in full each month. This can help them to avoid civil and criminal penalties. If a parent is not able to make their child support payments, they may be able to have the child support order modified to a more affordable rate. However, it should be noted that it is very difficult to obtain a child support modification. Moreover, indebted parents will typically need to make back payments on child support.
To initiate the modification process, it is best if the non-custodial parent communicates with the custodial parent and explains the issue. Together, the parties may petition the court to have the original child custody order modified. The custodial parent must also provide a legally necessary reason for the modification. Some reasons that may entitle the non-custodial parent to a modification order include:
- Losing a job or having to take a job for less pay;
- Encountering a medical or health issue that makes it impossible to work;
- Increasing school or healthcare costs for the child, which make it impossible for the parent to keep up with payments; and/or
- If the custodial parent received a substantial raise at work.
Lastly, in extreme cases and if the non-custodial parent can get the custodial parent to agree, a party may be able to get the child support order waived. This can happen if the parents decide to reunite or if the custodial parent is financially able to support themselves and the child without the other parent’s financial assistance.
How Far Behind in Child Support Payment Do I Need to Be Before a Warrant Is Issued?
In general, a child support payment may be considered as late the moment that the assigned due date passes and no payment has arrived. Depending on the contents of the child support order, the indebted parent may have a short amount of time (i.e., a grace period) to make up for the missing payment. However, if this period passes and they still have not made the payment, then the court or a state child support agency may issue a “Notice of Child Support Delinquency.”
Once such a notice is received, the court or state can begin to issue punishments against the parent like wage garnishment orders or placing liens against their personal and real property. A court may also issue a warrant. Specific to child support cases, a judge may issue two kinds of warrants: a civil and a criminal warrant.
A civil warrant is what results when the court holds a non-custodial parent in contempt of court for violating the child support order. This may lead to the non-custodial parent having to pay fines or serving a short jail sentence.
On the other hand, a criminal warrant can be issued when federal or state prosecutors are asked to intervene in a child support case. This can happen when a parent has failed to pay child support for an extended period of time (usually around a year or when the amount owed surpasses $5,000). The parent may then be arrested and will need to appear in court where they can be convicted.
A conviction in a criminal case for failing to pay child support can result in heavy criminal fines, a lengthy prison sentence, and the loss of some parental rights.
Can I Lose Custody for Not Paying Child Support?
In general, a parent will typically not lose custody of a child for not paying child support. For one, the parent who has custody is usually not the parent who is legally obligated to make child support payments.
Second, child support and child custody are two separate issues. Therefore, one does not normally affect the other unless the circumstances constitute an exception. For instance, a parent may lose custody of a child for failing to pay child support if they are sentenced to a stint in prison and no longer have the ability to care for the child due to being incarcerated.
Should I Consult a Lawyer About Not Making My Child Support Payments?
It is important to remember that making child support payments will not only directly impact your life, but also your child’s and any other family members who have to contribute money to support them. Aside from the emotional difficulties that you and your loved ones may face as a result of missed child support payments, having to modify a child support plan when you have already missed several payments can cause just as much stress on its own.
Therefore, if you wish to petition the court to modify the amount of your child support payments or are facing serious legal ramifications for failing to make child support payments, then it may be in your best interest to contact a local child support lawyer for further legal guidance. While it is certainly possible to file a petition and to represent yourself in court without an attorney, it is generally not recommended.
An experienced child support lawyer will be able to provide legal advice that is tailored to your exact circumstances and can discuss your current options under the law. Your lawyer will also be able to help you complete and file any forms that are required, as well as will be able to represent your best interests in court.