Failure to Pay Child Support

6 Potential Penalties for Parents Who Don't Pay

Handcuffed man standing in courtroom
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Custodial parents' frustration at lack of regular child support payments received for their children is rightfully placed. Statistically, fewer than 50% of the children who are owed child support money regularly receive full payments. That's why failure to pay child support is a federal offense in the eyes of the U.S. government.

In fact, a non-custodial parent who fails to pay child support in full and on time faces several penalties. In order of approximate severity, the penalties for failure to pay child support include: 

  • Having your driver's license suspended. States now ask if you pay child support as a part of the driver's license renewal process and local child support agencies regularly report to the Division of Motor Vehicles when a parent falls behind on child support payments. This allows the state to quickly check and enforce this first-step penalty for failure to pay child support.
  • Having your wages garnished. This means that the state will contact your employer directly and have them take payments right out of your paycheck under a state court-issued Default Judgment and Wage Garnishment Order. This particular penalty is generally viewed as an embarrassment and could even influence your status at work. Such garnishment can also include state and federal tax refund checks
  • Additional fines and penalties. States also charge additional fines and penalties for unpaid child support. This is why so many parents who fall behind on regular payments wind up owing tens of thousands of dollars.
  • Being unable to obtain a passport. The state can prevent you from obtaining or renewing your passport, limiting your ability to travel for work or leisure.
  • Dismissal from military service. Non-custodial parents in the military who fail to pay child support may also be dismissed from military service as a consequence for nonpayment.
  • Going to jail. The last resort for failure to pay child support is imprisonment. The length of time spent in jail varies by jurisdiction. Unfortunately, while severe, this penalty also means that the parent cannot work during this time. Therefore, parents who go to jail for nonpayment rarely emerge from jail better equipped to address the issue and start making regular child support payments.

Additional Penalties for Failure to Pay Child Support 

The federal government takes issue with parents who attempt to work the system and avoid child support payments. In cases where a non-custodial parent charged with child support non-payment moves to a different state to avoid making child support payments, he or she may be convicted of a federal offense under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act. In order to secure a conviction under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, the federal government must prove:

  • The parent had the ability to pay child support
  • The parent willfully failed to pay child support
  • Child support has not been paid for at least a year
  • The parent owes more than $5,000 in child support

Failure to Pay Child Support Due to Financial Hardship

Let's face it: there are times when a parent cannot make child support payments due to a sudden job loss or other legitimate hardship. However, parents should never simply fail to make child support payments altogether without communicating with co-parent and the state about the underlying issue.

Parents who struggle with child support payments should try to work something out with the local ​child support agency or seek a formal child support modification through the courts. To the best of your ability, you should continue to provide support in other ways – for example, by providing clothing, food, medical care, and child care. In addition, remember that making partial child support payments is better than nothing.