Child Support Arrears

Hossein Berenji, Nov 18, 2020

All parents in California are obligated to support their children financially until those children reach the age of majority, 18 in California. When parents separate or divorce, that obligation continues. The issue of child support is often a substantial one between divorcing parents. All divorces and legal separations must include child support orders if there are minor children of the marriage.

Being in arrears means that the parent ordered to pay monthly child support has fallen behind in those support payments.

Parents fall behind for varying reasons. If those reasons are financial, parents can get a modification of their child support order. But until they do, child support payments and arrearages continue to accrue. It is extremely difficult to get back child support payments removed or forgiven.

In order to be enforceable, the failure to pay must be pursuant to a court order. An oral agreement between the parents is unenforceable. However, every divorce involving children will have child support orders in place. Often temporary orders are put into place at the beginning of the proceedings until more permanent orders can be put in place. Often the arrearage occurs long after the divorce decree is issued by the court.

A Judge Can Impose Penalties For Failure to Pay

Failure to pay child support, regardless of the reason, can subject a parent to consequences. If a parent is financially unable to meet their obligation, the parent may seek a modification of the court’s order. Modifications are allowed when there is a substantial change in a parent’s financial situation.

Without a modification, the orders currently in place will govern. Courts take the duty to support children seriously. A parent who fails to pay can be subject to a number of consequences, including:

  • Contempt of court: Whenever a person fails to obey a court order, the court can issue a contempt ruling. This can mean fines and even jail time for the nonpaying parent.
  • Misdemeanor: California law allows a conviction on a misdemeanor charge. California law allows a conviction for child neglect or failure to provide care. The crime is punishable by a fine up to $2000, a year in jail, or both.
  • Increased interest and penalties: Interest on the arrearage accrues at 10%. A parent can also face penalties from 6% to 72% once they fall more than 30 days delinquent.
  • Wage garnishment: The amount withheld from a paycheck is sent to the state of California which in turn sends it to the custodial parent.
  • Income tax returns, disability payments, workers’ compensation payments may all be intercepted: This will continue until the arrearage is met.
  • Suspension of licenses: The state can suspend your drivers’ license, or any professional license issued by the state until the arrearage is paid.
  • Refusal by the government to renew passport: A parent who owes $2500, or more, is not eligible to get a U.S. passport or have one renewed.
  • Negative credit report: Arrearages are reported to credit reporting agencies.
  • Government lien against property: The state can place a lien on any real property or other property that a person has an ownership interest in until the arrearage is paid off. Once paid, it can take some time to have the lien removed.

If you’ve fallen behind on child support payments, it’s critical to enlist the help of an experienced family law attorney near you immediately.

Child Support Modifications

Sometimes, parents face a shifting financial landscape. Job loss, medical condition, and bills, and disability may all have a profound effect on a parent’s ability to pay support payments. When this happens, a parent can get a modification of an existing child support order.  This requires a hearing before a judge. Modifications usually require the help of an experienced child support attorney as well.

In addition, a parent who owes child support and who is able to reach an agreement with the custodial parent may be able to modify the amount of arrearage owing. This is, in effect, a settlement with the other parent. If you have questions about arrearages or modifications, you should bring them to an experienced child support attorney.

The Link Between Government Assistance and Back Child Support

Children who receive government assistance may also have a parent who owes child support payments. When that happens, it may be the state that seeks to collect the arrearages owed. Thus, it may be the state which seeks to have a non-paying parent’s wages garnished. The state will collect the money owed and forward support to the custodial parent.

Child Support and Bankruptcy

Filing for federal bankruptcy protection under Chapter 7 (liquidation) will not relieve a parent of past child support obligations Child support payments are considered a priority debt under federal law. Priority debts are not dischargeable under current bankruptcy law.

Owing past child support is a costly proposition. It is difficult for the non-paying parent and for the custodial parent. Ignoring the situation does not help. It is crucial that parents get the help they need when child support payments fall behind.