What Tools Are Available to Enforce Payment of Child Support?
When you are the custodial parent of minor children of a divorce, you have the right to collect child support from your ex. According to national studies, though, about one in every four non-custodial parents is delinquent in making child support payments. Not all of those who cannot pay are “deadbeat” parents—some have health or other issues that make it impossible for them to work.
What are your options for enforcing a child support order? Can you deny your ex visitation if they don’t make payments? What if your ex-spouse accrues a substantial arrearage?
Laws Governing Child Support Obligations and Enforcement
The first thing to understand is that child support issues are generally governed by state laws, so there will be some variations in enforcement from state to state. Every state has a specific agency that handles issues of enforcement. In Texas, for example, the Child Support Division of the Office of the Attorney General oversees payment, collection, and enforcement of child support. In Michigan, the Friend of the Court Bureau is a separate agency with offices in every county.
The law is clear in every state that access to minor children is not conditioned on payment of child support. You cannot legally withhold your children from a non-custodial parent who is behind in child support payments. If your ex has visitation rights under your divorce decree or other court order, you must allow them to visit the children.
What Options Are Available to Force Payment of Child Support?
Though the specific tools for enforcing child support payments vary from state to state, the following ways are available in most jurisdictions:
- A wage withholding order—With this approach, the court enters an order, which is submitted to the payer’s employer, compelling the withholding of child support payments from the payer’s wages. The employer transmits the funds to the state’s child support management agency, which transfers the payment to the custodial parent. Most states require that a child support order include a wage withholding order, though some allow the parties to waive the requirement. Wage withholding is generally unavailable when the noncustodial parent is self-employed, unemployed, or only periodically employed. The order may be limited to wages, or it may include bonuses, commissions, and pension benefits.
- Garnishment of wages—Garnishment is typically available only for the collection of arrearages. With this process, the court issues an order compelling a noncustodial parent’s employer to withhold a percentage of income and remit it to the child support agency until all back payments are caught up.
- Tax offsets—The court may issue an order compelling state or federal revenue authorities to withhold the non-paying parent’s tax refunds and direct them to the state’s child support agency, which will then transfer the payments to the custodial parent.
- Suspension or revocation of licenses—One common tool for enforcing a child support order is to suspend the non-paying parent’s driver’s license until they catch up on payments. A court also may revoke or suspend a professional license, though that can be counterproductive, as it can make it more difficult for the noncustodial parent to be gainfully employed.
- Liens on property—Any property that carries a document of title, such as real estate, boats, or cars, can be made the subject of a court-imposed lien. Under the right circumstances, property subject to a lien can be seized and sold to satisfy the underlying debt.
- Attachment or freezing of assets—A court may lock a noncustodial parent out of a bank account or other financial asset until a child support arrearage is paid off. The court may also take some portion of the proceeds held in a financial account and use them to pay past-due child support.