How Do You Get Your Child Support Money?
It’s a common situation: You’re a single parent, and your ex has stopped paying child support.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, just 41.2% of custodial parents received the full amount of child support owed to them in 2009. In fact, the report says nearly a third of parents got nothing at all. And because these parents were more than twice as likely as the general population to be poor, that’s money they really need.
Luckily, federal and state laws are generous to parents of either gender who are owed child support. State and local government agencies in every state will collect from “deadbeat” payers. A parent seeking to collect unpaid child support has the right to garnish the other parent’s wages, have his or her driver’s license suspended, empty bank accounts and stop real estate deals. The federal government will not issue a new passport to someone who owes unpaid child support. Child support debts cannot even be discharged in bankruptcy, although the payments may be lowered.
And while laws in different states may differ, there’s no fleeing your responsibility: According to the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, parents who move across state lines in order to avoid child support payments can be charged with a felony.
Some parents in this situation might be dreading going back to court; others might be looking forward to it. But Jim Hennenhoefer, a San Diego family lawyer, says a punishing court case should be the last resort.
“The last one, the least desirable one, the one you only do if there’s no hope … is contempt [of court],” says Hennenhoefer, a family law specialist certified by the State Bar of California.
So, if you’re in this situation, where should you start?
First, Get It in Writing
In all states, child support obligations are created by court orders. You probably got your child support order as part of a divorce or support case. Even if you didn’t go to court in person—which can happen when the court just approves an agreement the parents made—there should still be something in writing. That’s your starting point. Even if you’d rather resolve the issue out of court, a court order gives your ex an incentive to negotiate.
If you never made a formal written agreement with your ex, it’s time to go to court. Without anything in writing, there’s literally nothing to enforce. A government child support enforcement agency (see our section on Getting Help From the Government, below) can often help you get an order, or you can hire an attorney.
Then, Can You Talk?
You don’t have to start by talking with your ex—but family law experts recommend that you try. Negotiating is quicker than any collection effort, less likely to create bad feelings and far cheaper than a court case. For those reasons, it’s usually in the best interest of the children. But don’t do this if you can prove your ex is lying about his or her finances, or when there’s a history of domestic violence.
Even if you do agree on changes to your written agreement, you should spell them out and get your deal approved by a judge. Remember, if there’s no court order, your rights under the new agreement aren’t enforceable. Attorney fees for an uncontested change in a support order should be relatively low.
We’ll show you a few options to pursue getting a court order below.