The Law Dictionary

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What Happens When You Don’t Pay Child Support?

Child and Parent

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Child support obligations are officially mandated by a court of law. These agreements for the support of minor children specifically define when and how much must be paid by the non-custodial parent. When a non-custodial parent cannot or will not meet these obligations, they may face serious consequences that can include time in jail.

Consequences for Non-Payment of Child Support

Because child support is essentially a court order, a non-custodial parent who is not making these payments will be found in contempt of court. They are informed of the contempt charge in writing and ordered to appear in court. If the parent does not appear, a bench warrant for their arrest will be issued. Even if the parent does appear, they may still be sent to jail if they cannot provide adequate proof that they could not make the child support payments, rather than simply being unwilling to do so.

Avoiding a Contempt Charge

When the non-custodial parent suspects they will no longer be able to meet their child support obligations, it’s important to act quickly. The loss of a job, an extended illness, or other income reduction may significantly change the parent’s ability to pay. They can file a motion for child support modification that would decrease the amount they must pay each month. It may take time and the assistance of an attorney, but this proactive means of dealing with child support issues is far preferable to be found in contempt.


Other Penalties

Many judges recognize that it is impossible for parents who are incarcerated to meet child support obligations. Accordingly, courts won’t necessarily throw a parent in jail because they missed a few payments. They may order:

  • The garnishment of the parent’s wages
  • Take any tax refunds
  • Seize assets
  • Suspend a driver’s license

That is if they think such actions will help ensure proper payment. Depending upon the jurisdiction, the judge may also be able to modify the amount of child support that will be owed in the future. In these situations, the judge cannot reduce the amount of back child support payments that are owed. However, future child support payments may be reduced to reflect the noncustodial parent’s ability to pay.

Failing to comply with court-ordered child support payments can result in a major legal headache, tremendous expenses and time in jail When possible, it’s best to request a modification to avoid many of these penalties.



This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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