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How Does Child Support Work? Answers & Explanations for Parents

Providing financial security is an essential part of parenting. For noncustodial parents, they are accountable to the laws of America and their State when it comes to giving child support. Failure to do so could have serious consequences. Single parents in the U.S. usually rely on child support payments from the other parent of their child or children. Education, housing, food, and clothing are basic needs and costs that arise when raising a child. It is important to know that child support laws can vary from one state to the next, so always research the laws specific to the state you’re living in!

How Does Child Support Work?

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures website, child support programs are the “financial support paid by a parent to support offspring of whom they do not have full custody.” The agreement for child support is entered into by court order, voluntarily, or with the guidance of an administrative agency. It is a necessary arrangement to ensure the care of a minor.

To establish a child support order, you need to visit your local child support office. The following are the steps you need to take to set up a child support case, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

  1. Open a child support case.
  2. Locate the noncustodial parent.
  3. Paternity establishment – through testing or voluntary acknowledgment. 
  4. Establish a child support order.
  5. Set up child support payments.
  6. Enforce the support order through various consequences due to nonpayment. 
  7. Review the order after three years or if situations change.

What Happens If You Don’t Pay Child Support?

Noncustodial parents who fail to meet their child support obligations commit a federal offense in the U.S. and can face several penalties, such as:

  • Income withholding – Child support can be taken from the parent’s paycheck under court-issue. This includes seizure of state and federal tax refunds. 
  • Tarnished public record – credit bureaus will receive reports of your debts to child support.
  • Dismissal from military service
  • Fines and penalties
  • Restricted mobility – suspension of driver’s license and denial of passport
  • Imprisonment or federal penalties– This is the last resort for failure to pay and can vary by state. The jail time will differ by jurisdiction, coming to an end following payment of arrears. This consequence often sees parents unable to pay child support and can lead to a spiral of unemployment and deeper debt.

I Can’t Afford Child Support Payments! Now What?

Recently, the Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has left many with salary cuts or facing unemployment. Whatever unexpected hardship you face that limits you to meet your child support obligations, you need to communicate it with the state and co-parent. To formally ask for a child support modification, you need a court order. Only a judge can change what you are expected to pay to your child’s account.

Once you realize that you cannot meet the debt to your child, another option is to apply for services of financial support as the legal process for suspending your child support payments, is not easy. Contact your local Child Support Enforcement and ask for advice and contact details of their legal resources.

Making a small payment is better than no payment at all. An effort to pay, even if it’s not the full amount, will look good when it comes to facing a judge and pleading a case for modification. 

How Long Can I Miss Child Support Payments?

To avoid receiving a “Notice of Child Support Delinquency,” you need to pay your debt. All fifty states have different laws regarding what qualifies as delinquency of child services. For some states, the threshold is three months; for others, it is six months or the accumulation of four months’ worth of debt. Consequences differ in each state. NCSL.org offers an informative article about the penalties and delinquency threshold in your area.

What Can I Do If My Ex-Partner is Not Paying Child Support?

As the custodial parent, the nonpayment to your child support account can be devastating. To receive back child support (outstanding payments), you need to contact your State Attorney’s office, district attorney, or lawyer. To find out if the state will pay support in place of the non-paying parent, contact child support services or search for the possible grants in your state online.

Back Child Support vs. Retroactive Payments

Back support is outstanding payments from the noncustodial parent since the court-ordered child support took effect. Retroactive child support is the accumulated expense that the custodial parent had incurred before the child support order was in place. The court will decide if the co-parent should pay retroactive payments depending on individual circumstances.

Evading child support payments not only affect the custodial parent but, more importantly, they harm the child. Children need emotional support, financial security, and love. Withholding funds, whether by choice or circumstances, can have negative consequences for all involved and put pressure on relationships. 

For more information about the duty to support your child, visit acf.hhs.gov.

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