Enforcement of Child Support Orders in a California DivorceChild Support Enforcement Time Limits: California
California Department of Child Support Services
Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement
Here's help for both parents when one fails to meet child support obligations.
- What happens if a parent falls behind on his or her child support payments?
- I lost my job six months ago, and fell behind on my child support payments. I just decided to request the court to reduce the amount of child support I have to pay. Can I be excused from the child support debt I accumulated for the last six months?
- I just filed for bankruptcy. Can I discharge my child support arrearages?
- My ex-spouse is refusing to pay court-ordered child support. How can I see to it that the order is enforced?
- My spouse and I separated a year ago. Can I file for child support now and get an order that covers the last year?
- My spouse is in charge of our household finances, but barely provides me with enough to keep the cars running and buy food and clothes for the kids. Can I sue for child support?
What happens if a parent falls behind on his or her child support payments?
Each installment of court-ordered child support is to be paid according to the date set out in the order. When a person does not comply with the order, the overdue payments are called arrearages or arrears. Judges have become very strict about enforcing child support orders and collecting arrearages. While the person with arrears can ask a judge for a downward modification of future payments, the judge will usually insist that the arrearage be paid in full, either immediately or in installments.(back to top)
I lost my job six months ago, and fell behind on my child support payments. I just decided to request the court to reduce the amount of child support I have to pay. Can I be excused from the child support debt I accumulated for the last six months?
Courts are supposed to refuse to retroactively modify a child support obligation. In fact, judges in most states are prohibited by law from retroactively modifying a child support obligation. This means if a person becomes unable to pay support, he may petition the court for a reduction, but even if the court reduces future payments, it should hold him liable for the full amount of support due and owing. For this reason, if a parent with a child support obligation starts falling behind because his income has decreased or his debts have increased, he should immediately seek a temporary modification.
Example: Joe has a child support obligation of $300 per month. Joe is laid off of his job, and six months pass before he finds another one with comparable pay. Although Joe could seek a temporary decrease on the grounds of diminished income, he lets the matter slide and fails to pay any support during the six-month period. Joe's ex-wife later brings Joe into court to collect the $1,800 arrearage; Joe cannot obtain a retroactive ruling excusing him from making the earlier payments.(back to top)
I just filed for bankruptcy. Can I discharge my child support arrearages?
Back child support cannot be canceled in a bankruptcy proceeding. This means that once it is owed, it will always be owed, until paid.(back to top)
My ex-spouse is refusing to pay court-ordered child support. How can I see to it that the order is enforced?
Under the Child Support Enforcement Act of 1984, the district attorneys (or state's attorneys) of every state must help you collect the child support owed by your ex. Sometimes this means that the D.A. will serve your ex with papers requiring him to meet with the D.A. and arrange a payment schedule, and telling him that if he refuses to meet or pay, he could go to jail. If your ex has moved out of state, you or the D.A. can use legal procedures to locate him and seek payment. Federal and state parent locator services can also assist in locating missing parents.
Federal laws permit the interception of tax refunds to enforce child support orders. Other methods of enforcement include wage attachments, seizing property, suspending the business or occupational license of a payer who is behind on child support or -- in some states -- revoking the payer's driver's license. Your state's D.A. may employ any one of these methods in an attempt to help you collect from your ex.
If you and your ex live in different states, you may use the Revised Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement of Support Act (RURESA) to seek payment. Under that law, the court in the state where you live contacts a court in your ex-spouse's state, which in turn requires him to pay. This procedure will be provided to you free of charge. Unfortunately, however, it often falls short of its stated goals due to the complexity of the process and the low priority frequently assigned to these cases by the courts and law enforcement officers.
In 1992, Congress passed the Child Support Recovery Act (CSRA) which makes it a federal crime for a parent to willfully refuse to make support payments to a parent who lives in another state. This statute has been challenged on constitutional grounds (beyond the authority of Congress), and its enforcement is spotty.
As a last resort, the court that has issued the child support order can hold your ex in contempt and, in the absence of a reasonable explanation for the delinquency, impose a jail term. This contempt power is exercised sparingly in most states, primarily because most judges would rather keep the payer out of jail where he has a chance of earning the income necessary to pay the support.(back to top)
My spouse and I separated a year ago. Can I file for child support now and get an order that covers the last year?
Probably not. Judges will only enforce orders beginning from the date the request is filed with the court. This is why it's very important to file for child support as soon you and your partner separate.(back to top)
My spouse is in charge of our household finances, but barely provides me with enough to keep the cars running and buy food and clothes for the kids. Can I sue for child support?
Not unless you and your spouse live apart. Courts cannot, and will not, intervene in a family's lifestyle unless the children are being abused or neglected. Parents aren't legally obligated to provide material goods other than food, shelter, clothing and education (up to a state's required age of attendance).(back to top)