Enforcement Methods

Many Means To Collect

The states and federal government have many means available to collect child support payments.  Some are designed to help parents both record and receive the timely disbursement of support payments.  These range from severely restrict access to financial assets to incarceration.  The most common methods of enforcing child support payments include:

1. Income Withholding (Wage Garnishment)

Income withholding (also known as wage garnishment) is one of the simplest and most effective enforcement remedies. It is implemented by a court or administrative order directing the non-custodial parent’s employer to deduct child support from earned wages.  Once the garnishment takes effect, the current child support and a portion of the overdue child support is taken directly out of the non-custodial parent’s paycheck each pay period.

The amount of wages that can be withheld varies from state to state, but is usually a certain percentage of total earnings.  To ensure the support needs of children are met income withholding for child support payments usually take precedence over other garnishments, such as consumer debt.

2. Income Tax Refunds

Child support arrearages are authorized by law to be deducted from a non-custodial parent’s state or federal tax refund.  The amount of back child support is deducted if at least $150 is owed and the children receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) benefits.  The amount increases to $500 if the children do not receive TANF before interception of a tax refund is allowed.

3. Bonds and Securities

Some states allow enforcement procedures that protect against delinquent payments by requiring the non-custodial parent to post a bond, security or other financial asset to provide payment if it should become overdue.

4. Suspension of License Privileges

The Welfare Reform Act of 1996 directs the states to implement procedures for withholding, revoking, and suspending licenses for non-custodial parents who are in arrears of child support payments. Although no standard amount is established among the states, most require a threshold amount and due notice to be made before any license is affected.  The types of licenses which may be withheld, suspended, or revoked include:

  • Driver’s and Pilot’s (personal, chauffer, permit, etc.)
  • Professional (medical/clinical, legal, engineering, etc.)
  • Recreational (hunting, fishing, etc.)
  • Passport (if the non-custodial parent’s arrears are greater than $5,000)
  • Security (clearance, firearms, etc.)

5. Credit Bureau Reporting

In the instance that a non-custodial parent’s child support arrears exceed $1,000 the information is automatically submitted to the three primary credit reporting agencies.  When the arrearage balance is satisfied a notation will be made to the credit history reflecting a zero balance.  However, in accordance with credit law, a record of the debt will remain on the credit file for not less than seven years.

6. Financial Institution Data Match (FIDM)

FIDM is a process created under authority of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) which allows monies in financial accounts to be held by delinquent non-custodial parents to be matched with overdue child support payments and seized in whole or in part to satisfy those obligations.

7. Liens & Levies

Liens and levies are legal holds placed on property to ensure that the debt is paid before property can be sold or refinanced. A lien can be placed on real estate or personal property such as vehicles, bank accounts, insurance settlements, lottery disbursements, annuity payments, or lump sum payouts.

8. Contempt of Court

Contempt of court is a criminal legal action usually brought by the state child support agency on behalf of the custodial parent against a non-paying parent. The parent in question may be jailed to force payment.  The court can also order a verified job search and periodic reports back to court or a variety of other actions.

The remedies available to the court will vary widely based on the amount, nature, repetition of failure to pay; the claim and defense of same, as well as the judge’s preferences to consider the “best interests of the children.”  The decision of the court may result in an order to comply with one or more of the identified methods of enforcement, a modification to the order, or no significant action at all.

9. IRS Full Collection

A process similar to multi-state financial institution data matching where the Internal Revenue Service may seize all or part of financial assets, places liens or levies on real and personal property, and intercept federal tax refunds.  This method is generally exercised as an action of last resort.

10. Federal Prosecution

Federal law allows prosecution and incarceration of a non-custodial parent to cross state lines in the willful attempt to avoid paying child support.  The FBI holds primary investigative jurisdiction, however, Special Agents of the Office of Investigations in the Office of the Inspector General, United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), have also been given authority to investigate violations of the law. 

Under authority of the Child Support Recovery Act CSRA, the United States Attorney in each judicial district has the responsibility for determining which cases will be selected for investigation and prosecution.

Note on Child Support Versus Access

Child support and access are independent obligations. A non-custodial parent may not legally stop paying child support, even if access is momentarily or continually denied.  Conversely, a custodial parent may not legally deny access to the children for nonpayment of child support. Withholding ordered access would be contempt of court and in some instances may be prosecuted as a criminal act.