Child support is intended to provide for a child's needs, from housing to food to clothing and even extracurricular activities. It's not payment made to the custodial parent in exchange for caring for the child, although most states don't regulate how the money is actually used.
Only 45.9% of the custodial parents who were owed child support money received full payments in 2017, according the U.S. Census Bureau’s Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support report released in 2020. Failure to pay child support is a federal offense in the U.S., and noncustodial parents who fail to pay face several penalties.
Driver's License Suspension
All states have laws or regulations providing for the revocation or suspension of driver’s licenses or occupational, professional or business licenses for failing to pay child support. Local child support agencies regularly report to the Division of Motor Vehicles when a parent falls behind on support payments. This allows the state to quickly check and enforce this first-step penalty for failure to pay.
The state will contact an employer directly and have the company take support payments out of a parent's paycheck under a court-issued Default Judgment and Wage Garnishment Order. The money is then sent to the state for transmittal to the custodial parent.
Garnishment can also include seizure of state and federal tax refunds.
Fines and Penalties
Some states also charge additional fines and penalties for unpaid child support. Parents who fall far behind on regular payments can wind up owing tens of thousands of dollars.
Denial of Passports
Delinquent parents could find that they're unable to obtain passports. The state can prevent them from obtaining or renewing them, limiting the ability to travel for work or leisure.
Dismissal From Military Service
Noncustodial parents in the military who fail to pay child support can be dismissed from military service as a consequence for nonpayment.
Imprisonment is usually the last resort for failure to pay child support. The duration of the sentence can vary by jurisdiction, but parents are usually released as soon as all child support arrears are paid.
Unfortunately, the parent can't work during a period of incarceration. Parents who go to jail for nonpayment rarely emerge from jail better equipped to address the issue.
Parents can also be convicted of a federal offense under Section 228 of Title 18 of United States Code in cases where they owe child support and move to a different state. The federal government must prove several things in order to secure a conviction under this law:
- The parent had the ability to pay.
- The parent willfully failed to pay.
- Child support has not been paid for at least a year or
- The parent owes more than $5,000 in support.
This is considered a criminal misdemeanor and can result in up to six months in prison as of 2020. The charge can increase to a criminal felony and up to two years in prison on a second offense or when support hasn't been paid in more than two years or the amount owed reaches more than $10,000.
Child support enforcement must begin at the state or local level before it can proceed to a federal court.
Failure to Pay Due to Financial Hardship
There are times when a parent simply can't make child support payments due to unexpected job loss or another legitimate hardship. Parents should never simply fail to make child support payments altogether when this happens. They should communicate with the co-parent and with the state about the underlying issue.
Parents who struggle with support payments can seek formal child support modification through the courts. In the meantime, they should continue to provide support in other ways to the extent possible, such as by providing clothing, food, medical care, or child care.
Making partial child support payments is better than defaulting entirely.