Those who fall behind face a legal system that prioritizes swift collection on behalf of children, which can make life miserable for those who don’t pay.
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But just how horrible can child support arrearage be? It is the mother of all debts. Those who fall behind will confront a legal system that makes it easy for the custodial parent to collect, and makes life miserable for those who do not pay.
Here are nine potential actions and penalties a parent can face if he or she allows this crucial debt to rack up.
1. Wage garnishment.
Fail to meet your child support payments as ordered by the court and, if you’re employed, prepare for your paychecks to be dramatically slashed. Unlike most bills in which creditors have to win a lawsuit before being able to garnish a maximum of about 25 percent of your net earnings, no judgment is required for child support debt. In general, a custodial parent would need to obtain an authorization from the court with a writ of execution. A sheriff will present the document to the debtor’s employer, with instructions to withhold a portion of the person’s wages. Depending on the jurisdiction, up to 50 percent if your wages can be taken if you’re supporting another dependent, and 60 percent if you aren’t.
“This is a frequent collection method,” says Frank Morris, a family law attorney practicing in Olympia, Washington. “Even more so if the former spouse is getting government assistance because the government wants to be reimbursed. They are extremely aggressive in collecting the funds, and these wage garnishments are very efficient.”
Checking, savings or investment accounts can all be drained and frozen if you owe child support. Childsupport enforcement agents or authorized officials also can access credit reports if necessary toverify your ability to make support payments or determine how much youshould pay.
Quincy, Massachusetts-based divorce attorney Gabriel Cheong says this process is usually handled by the state Department of Revenue on behalf of the custodial parent. “They can request the court to take money out of the person’s account,” says Cheong. “It has to be worth their trouble, though. If the person only has $5 in the account, they won’t make the effort. Also, a lot of people who do have money get wise and move it out before that happens.”
As for cash in retirement accounts, it’s typically protected up until it’s part of a person’s income stream. After that, it’s up for grabs.
If you have valuable property, a lien can be placed against it. While many judgment creditors may be granted the right to place liens against tangible assets such as real estate, vehicles and boats, it can take time to place and implement. Not so for child support issues.
“If the government is involved, it can place a lien administratively,” says Morris. “No lawsuit is involved, so they can get the lien going faster and at no real cost.”
When the lien is in effect, you won’t be able to borrow against the value of the property. If you sell it, the proceeds will be diverted to the custodial parent (or the state agency, if it is involved in collecting the debt). If you sit on the asset too long, you may be forced to sell it.
A punitive measure for not paying child support is denying the right to drive a car or the practice of a business that requires a license, such as in the law and the health care fields. The same goes for hunting and fishing licenses. While it may sound counterproductive, it is a way to get the debtor to stop running and go to court to deal with the damages, says Cheong.
Anna King, a student support service director from Atlanta, has a 10-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, and the father owes more than $10,000 in support. After a prolonged history of sporadic and then no payments, the courts suspended the father’s driver’s license. “This is the best we can do right now,” says King. “It can be the only thing that gets his attention. He would give up trying if the court wasn’t on his back.”
5. Public humiliation.
Most people do not want their financial dirty laundry to be hung in the town square. For this reason, shaming someone into paying what they owe for child support is allowed in certain areas, and in creative ways. Most-wanted lists with names and faces of child support debtors can be posted online.
Now social media is being used to shame debtors.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced in his 2016 State of the State address that fathers who aren’t meeting their obligations will be called out on Twitter. “For too long, you’ve been able to remain anonymous – able to skirt your financial and legal responsibilities with no shame,” he said. “Since then, the state’s Department of Economic Security has posted the photos, names and money owed by these losers to social media, with the hashtag “#deadbeat.” The governor retweets each message to his more than 22,000 followers.
6.Interception of funds.
Owe child support debt and are owed a tax refund? The IRS won’t be mailing you a check. They’ll send it to the correct party instead. And don’t celebrate winning the lottery, either. The government receives notifications of winnings greater than $600, so that, too, will be tapped to satisfy your debt.
As for other types of gambling, in many states casinos play a part in child support collection. If you hit the jackpot, you’ll need to present your ID to claim the payout, but if your name is included in a database of parents with delinquent child support debt, you may only get any remaining winnings after your debt has been paid.
7. Revoked and denied passports.
From the sugary sands of the Maldives to historic cities like London, as a U.S. citizen you have the right to travel abroad. Unless you owe child support.
A federal program called Passport Denial stipulates that anyone owing more than $2,500 in child support will be denied a U.S. passport until the obligation is satisfied or legally dealt with. If you already hold a passport, the government can revoke it when you attempt to renew it. And it happens. “As of December 2015, my ex’s passport was revoked,” says King. “This way he can’t flee the country to get out of paying.”
8. Credit damage.
Pay the custodial parent as agreed and your credit report won’t be affected, positively or negatively. If you don’t and then accumulate more than $1,000 in child support debt, your delinquent child support will be reported to credit bureaus.The balance may be turned over to a child support recovery agency and your credit rating will take a nose dive.
Additionally, if the state sues you for the debt, you’ll have a judgment listed in the public records section of your credit reports.
Depending on your state, there may be no statute of limitations on child support liabilities. As such, this debt can stick to your credit reports like super glue. The only solvent is doing what it takes to work the problem out.
9. Time behind bars.
The harshest consequence for letting a child support liability linger is being sent to jail on contempt of court charges.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, willfully not paying child support is illegal, and under certain circumstances, the person who does so is subject to federal prosecution. For example, it is a criminal misdemeanor to deliberately not pay for a child who lives in another state, have a debt that’s over a year past due or which exceeds $5,000. The punishment can be up to six months in prison.
Worse, it’s a criminal felony to be over two years delinquent, owe over $10,000, attempt to cross state lines or leave the country to avoid payments. Offenders may spend two years in prison.
An increasing number of parents who evade child support obligations are being hit hard with this punitive method. For example, in October 2016, dozens of Indiana parents who owed back child support were rounded up and sent to criminal court, and 168 were arrested in New Jersey in a multiday sweep in September 2016.
Sound scary? It should. Not all parents who neglect paying child support suffer such severe repercussions, but many do – especially if the custodial parent is willing to push for it or get the government involved in the debt recovery process.
“Make your child support payments a priority,” says King. “My child’s father put it on the back burner. He paid for other things first because it’s easy to think it’s a negligible debt. But you know what, it’s not. I’m sure he’s regretting it.”