Are You Having Difficulty Paying Child Support?
You're trying your best to meet your child support obligation. You know more child support gives your child a better chance to grow up securely.
But the money just isn't there. So what can you do?
Luckily, you have options.
Pay as much as you can
This is a good first step. It may seem obvious. If so, great! Now, don't just think about it — do it. If you're not already paying as much as you can, doing so will transform your situation.
Deciding how much you can send
The other parent is better off when you send a partial payment than when you send nothing. Their financial well-being benefits your child.
You, too, benefit when you lower your debt. Unpaid child support mounts up. Every dollar you pay now is a dollar you won't owe later.
Besides, you may be charged interest. It gets more expensive the longer you wait! Most U.S. states have a law that specifies how much interest you will owe. For some, it's a flat rate anywhere between 4 and 12 percent per year. Others have a special calculation.
Do you also pay attention to what percentage of your court-ordered amount you pay? The child support office does.
Here's what that means for you: Try to pay as close to the full amount as you possibly can. Don't compare yourself to anyone else. Specifically, don't make a partial payment based on what your friend is getting away with paying for their child support.
If your friend's order is $1,000, and they make a partial payment of $800, they're paying 80 percent of what they owe. If your order is higher — say, $1,250 — then when you send $800, it only covers 64 percent of what you owe.
The child support office decides how they will prioritize enforcement and whom they'll reach out to about missed payments. They could evaluate your compliance in multiple ways. Consider how you appear to them.
Making payments automatic
Most parents who make child support payments have their employer withhold money from their paycheck. Federal and state laws encourage this payment method. Your employer starts doing this when they receive an Income Withholding Order (IWO). This arrangement prevents you from falling behind.
Sometimes, parents and the judge agree to a different payment method. An automatic withdrawal from your bank account is a smart alternative. You won't forget to send the payment, and then you won't be tempted to spend that money on something else.
If you don't have an automatic payment method and you think it might help you, talk to the child support office.
Coming up with the money
Just as a person would do to pay any other debt, some parents seek more income to pay off their outstanding child support. But remember what makes child support a different kind of debt: It's based on your income. If your income increases significantly, the other parent could ask for more support.
A judge won't bother changing the order by a tiny amount, and they don't want to change it too often. But if you're promoted at work and it appears to the judge that you could handle paying an extra couple hundred dollars per month, the order might change.
It may be better for you to seek modest increases in your income: extra hours at your job, a holiday temp job or a hobby that brings in a little extra cash. You might host a yard sale or sell a beat-up car you don't use. That may be just enough to get you through your immediate shortfall.
Some parents seek a loan and use the proceeds to pay child support. To be sure, shuffling debt around is kicking the can down the road. A parent who does this is no longer behind on their child support, but they do have to pay back the loan.
Is it a wise choice, though? Maybe! Pay attention to the terms of the loan. It might offer a better interest rate or delay some consequences. You might prefer having "regular" debt over child support debt.
If you're divorcing or you've been divorced, you may be able to split your retirement account with your ex to count toward child support.
Lastly, when you file taxes, don't leave money on the table! You may be able to claim the Child Tax Credit and medical expense deductions for your child.
Communicate with the child support office
The original child support order should have fit your ability to pay. If you're having trouble paying, it's probably because something changed since then.
Let the child support office know when you have big life events. Did you have to replace the roof on your house after a snowstorm? Did you miss the annual bonus you were counting on? Did you have a new baby?
They need to know all this. You may wish you'd said something earlier, but it's better to say something today than never. The child support office has experience with all kinds of situations. They may be able to help you arrange a workable solution, especially when they hear that you care and that you're trying.
Get a new support order
When you really can't pay, you may qualify for a new support order. Your state's child support rules say when you can ask to change yours.
If you or the other parent has a change in income
Of course, people have different incomes. Your income probably isn't exactly the same as the other parent's, and it may change.
Most states (as well as the District of Columbia, to some extent) consider the income of each parent when ordering the amount of child support. And they recognize that a big change in either one of your incomes could justify changing the court order.
If your income has substantially decreased, the court may reduce your payment.
If the other parent's income has significantly increased, this may be another reason to reduce your contribution. Similarly, if they have a new partner, their increased household income and reduced expenses — maybe they now split the rent, for example — may be relevant.
However, if you are a noncustodial parent (that is, you have little parenting time) and your child support is ordered by Alaska, Mississippi, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas or Wisconsin, the state only considers your income. You pay a percentage of your own paycheck. Unless you have an unusual situation and a judge agrees, the income of the other parent is not relevant.
Other reasons to change the amount
The judge may reduce or end your child support payments if you spend more time with your child or pay more expenses than your court order called for.
If you're able to talk to the other parent about their needs, it may help to revisit what they want from you. Their needs may have changed since the original child support order. Maybe now they need your help with parenting time more than they need your money.
If you get more parenting time, you will likely owe less child support. Find out if the other parent is open to it. You'd have to make it official with a new court order.
Filling out the right paperwork
Your state should offer a form to request changes. You can probably find it online.
Fill out your state's appropriate form, pay the court fee and request a hearing. Prepare for your child support hearing thoroughly, and bring evidence that supports your claims.
As with all situations related to your child, it's easiest if you agree with the other parent. If the other parent agrees to your request to pay less child support, the judge may issue a decision without requiring you to appear at a hearing.
End your support order when it's time
You may expect that your child support obligation will eventually end. In many states, however, you must petition the court when it's time. Believe it or not, it doesn't end automatically!
If you're unemployed, disabled or in jail, you may not have to pay anything. But don't assume the child support office is aware of your situation. You need to start the conversation. Let the office know of any changes as soon as you can.
When your child reaches your state's age limit, you must inform the child support office. If your child is disabled you may owe support indefinitely, but otherwise you can usually expect to stop paying when they're 18. A few states use different age limits. New York, for example, requires you to pay until the child is 21, or until 26 if they are developmentally disabled.
See the information above about filling out the right paperwork.
How the other parent can get through this time
The other parent may qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This is federal money distributed through the states.
TANF is a safety net to give them a more reliable income. If the other parent receives TANF, you'll continue to owe child support, but the state may take your payments instead of passing them on to the other parent.
Other government assistance may be available to them. Here are a few examples.
- Food: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Emergency Food Assistance Program and Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)
- Early education and childcare: Head Start and your state's Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP)
- Heat: Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
They may also find help from private groups like food pantries, mutual aid networks or religious communities.
You probably wish you could help your child directly. You may care about the other parent, too. And if you keep trying, you may find a way to send them more money when your situation improves.
Meanwhile, remember that they can seek and benefit from other kinds of support. They may want your participation — and legally you owe it — but their situation is not entirely about you.
Consequences you may face if you don't pay
Take your debt seriously. If you stop complying with the court order, you may face steep consequences.
If you're getting phone calls, you already know that the state may make its own effort to collect this debt. The other parent may seek help from private debt collection agencies, and you may get those phone calls, too.
If you fall behind, the state child support office may tell your employer to withhold more money from your paycheck than the court order originally specified. This forces you to pay off your past debt while also keeping current with your obligation. This increase may not require a judge's approval.
A judgment could be made against you for the total amount of unpaid support. You might be reported to credit bureaus. If you own a house or car, liens could be put on your property. A writ of execution could allow authorities to seize your assets.
If the state reports you to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, the federal government may withhold certain payments that it would otherwise make to you. For example, you may not receive your federal tax refund.
Furthermore, your driver's license and passport could be suspended.
For a short-term failure to pay, a judge could find you in contempt of court and could fine you or briefly jail you. If you don't pay for a year or two (depending on state law), a criminal charge could be brought against you, and you could face heavier fines and longer prison time.
Helping yourself and your child
A child has a right to financial support from their parents. That's why child support exists. That's why it's your responsibility.
Money problems are stressful, but a good attitude can go a long way toward finding a solution. When you cooperate with the other parent and with the state, they know you are trying your best, and they're more likely to work with what you've got.
Sometimes the answer is to adjust little habits over the long-term: work one extra hour on the clock, buy one less restaurant meal.
Or maybe one big change will transform your life when the time comes.
Take care of yourself, meanwhile. If you don't see the answer right now, put on your favorite music, get a good night's sleep and look at the situation with fresh eyes tomorrow. You matter, too. You are the person who will make all these choices for yourself and for your child.