How Do You Get Your Child Support Money?

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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.

  • JOn

    I wish they need to back off. Many of deadbeat payer probably loose the job and have no income or making less income. I am single parent and primary care custody. I do not believe this bullshit child support system. Single parent need to start take of yourself and not rely somebody’s money and child support. My advice – s;ways share custody and it is good for the children.. Don’t need money war game.

    • Rona

      LOL. That sounds great Jon in an imaginary world where you assume the other parent wants anything to do with their kids in the first place. Your 100% correct Single parents shouldn’t have to rely on child support because the other parent should automatically be providing for their kids needs, however that doesn’t seem to always happen some people need to be forced to take care of their responsibilities and we need a system in play for that.

    • Jen

      Your story is unfortunately not that uncommon, Jon, and certainly not laughable.

  • Con

    How about if you have the child 50% of the time, pay for their health insurance out of your pocket, pay the other parent child support that is so much, it forces you to move back in with your parents, meanwhile, she doesn’t work, collects foodstamps and medicaid, has another child with another man, and now they are looking at buying a house with an FHA loan and down payment assistance? The child support system is very ‘pro single mom’s”. I get that there are many deadbeat dads out there, but she is NOT disabled and I’m NOT a deadbeat! There is no reason she can’t work, and I’m paying her money to stay home and take care of another man’s baby, while my child is now school age. The child support system needs to help out the single dad’s who actually care for and love their children, yet pay so much in child support to someone who simply refuses to work.

    • Sondra

      Then you need to go back to court and have your situation looked at again. Especially if you have it in writing that you have the child half the time. The reason you pay child support even in that situation is so the child maintains the same level of care with either parent. If she’s blowing it all on herself or you feel you could do a better job, fight for full custody and have proof that she’s being an irresponsible parent. If she’s on welfare, she’s also allowed to receive financial help with daycare through the state so that she can get a job. You’d be surprised by the fact that judge’s look favorably on father’s that want to be a part of their child’s life.

      • Con

        Thanks, Sondra, going back to court is definitely in the cards…the hardest part of this whole situation is trying to deal with it while leaving my son out of it. I have tried really hard to maintain an amicable relationship with his mother throughout this whole situation, but I think she has taken my ‘nice guy’ attitude for granted.

        When we first put my son in preschool (which she fought very hard against, and my only guess why was that if she no longer took care of him during the day, her excuse for not working would be taken away), we could only afford to send him two days per week. After about a month they told us about the program for discounted preschool so he could go every day if she would get a job or was actively looking for a job. She never did, and a month after that she announced she was pregnant…so frustrating. Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

  • imdb

    First thing – go to Child Support Services and file a ‘claim’. That way, if the non-custodial parent gets a tax return, wins the lottery, etc., that money will come to the custodial parent first. My x went on strike through his employment several years back. He never once considered how this effected his children, suddenly having no child support. It was all a big vacation for him. We survived and I learned then to file a claim first thing.

  • Milasmatic

    In my country, when people (men, dah, it´s always the men) don´t pay, they can be condemned to spend the night in prison. Simply and effective.

    • NotClinging2Support

      It is not always the men.
      The mother of my daughters, now ages 10 and 13, pulled a disappearing act 7 years ago to avoid paying, and has never even contacted them since! It is, evidently, not that uncommon anymore. Mothers can be just as irresponsible as fathers, and often are.
      As far as I’m concerned, they don’t know what they’re missing out on!
      My ex is missing out on the joys of parenthood; while I’m only missing out on Child Support!

  • jen

    No kidding – in 2009 many noncustodial parents lost their jobs in the recession and can’t afford to go to court to have it changed. Custodial parents’ income and ability to work should be considered in all states, because a child is the responsibility of two parents.

    The system, particularly in gross income states, is unfair to the noncustodial parent. I do not collect child support for my child from a previous relationship because I think it’s unfair, and I support her and my husband alone because he couldn’t possibly live on his own due to his own child support obligations.

  • veromrtz

    What if the father is from another country and is not legal? And I don’t get help from the government because I make too much. Yet I’m trying to go back to college, have bad credit (because I helped my family) and a single mother of 2 children. I don’t want everything paid, just need their help. Financially (even if its $100-$300 a month) and physically. Any advice?