The risks of failing to make court-ordered child support payments

What happens when a divorced parent fails to make court-ordered child support payments or to make them promptly?

by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  2min read

Child support payments are often one of the more contested aspects of divorce proceedings, and parents can face severe penalties for failing to make court-ordered payments as scheduled.

Consequences may include wage garnishment, incarceration

Some of the most common penalties for nonpayment of child support include the following: 

  • Warrant issued for arrest, which may be criminal or civil
  • Finding of contempt of court
  • Fines, jail, or both
  • Garnishment of wages, including unemployment and worker's compensation
  • Denial of tax refunds
  • Exclusion from receipt of certain government benefits
  • Revocation of passport
  • Suspension, revocation, or denial of various licenses—professional, driver's, hunting/fishing/boating
  • Having a lien placed on the property to cover payment

Laws vary by state, military standing

It is important to note that state laws and enforcement of penalties vary regarding child support, but one constant is that every state is prepared to enforce court-ordered child support, whether from that state or another state. Moreover, under the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, parents who move across state lines to avoid child support payments can be brought up on federal charges as well. Penalties for a conviction can include mandatory restitution of unpaid support obligation and imprisonment for up to two years in some instances.

Note that penalties for nonpayment of child support by members of the military may differ and can even include dismissal from service, depending on circumstances.

Financial setbacks? Be proactive in seeking help

Because of these potentially harsh penalties, those having difficulty making payments are advised to do whatever they can to ensure timely payment.

If financial difficulties make full payment seem impossible, contacting the local enforcement agency and letting them know of the difficulties may convince them to help set up a temporary payment plan to keep a support-obligated parent from falling behind.

It is also possible to have support orders revised by the court. Still, the requesting parent might have to show a change in circumstances, such as a decrease in income or other economic hardship, a change in the custodial schedule, medical emergencies, other issues involving the parent or child, or changes in the child's needs.

Payment delinquencies should not affect visitation rights

Visitation rights are entirely separate from child support obligations. A parent who fails to make child support payments may still exercise any court visitation rights, and the custodial parent must not restrict access. In fact, preventing a nonpaying parent from exercising their visitation rights can cause a court to look unfavorably upon the custodial parent.

Regardless of whether a parent is the payor or the recipient of child support, both parents should keep in mind that the right to receive support rests with the child.

Neither parent should attempt to use support or related issues to influence, control, or punish the other parent.

For more information regarding specific situations, parents should seek the advice of a professional who is well versed in their state's child support laws and enforcement provisions.

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Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.