What Happens When You Don't Pay Child Support?

By Beverly Bird

State courts and the federal government are pretty serious about making sure noncustodial parents contribute financially to their kids’ households. The law takes the position that if you and your ex hadn’t broken up, your kids would have had the benefit of both your incomes, so they shouldn’t suffer because you and your ex decided to go your separate ways. As a result, not paying court-ordered child support can complicate your life and possibly land you in jail.

Collection of Child Support

Most states require that even current child support be paid through income withholding orders -- your employer deducts your support obligation from your pay and sends it to the state, which then gives the money to your ex. This rule can sometimes be waived by written consent of both parents. All custodial parents have a right to collect support through state services, even when an IWO isn't in place. State services monitor child support accounts and take action when a noncustodial parent falls behind.

Wage Garnishment

IWOs are only as much as the amount of child support you must pay, but if you fall behind – maybe you’re out of work or self-employed so an IWO won’t work -- garnishment for arrears can be much more. Federal law provides that your state can take at least 50 percent of your pay after taxes if you have other children or a spouse who also need your support. Otherwise, the state can take 60 percent and if you haven’t paid in 12 weeks or more, it can tack another 5 percent onto these numbers.

License Suspensions

Another support enforcement measure involves suspending any licenses you hold, such as your driver’s license or even a professional or sporting license. According to Pine Tree Legal Assistance, you should receive notice first so you’ll have an opportunity to pay what you owe or otherwise try to resolve the problem.

Interception of Tax Refunds

If you’re expecting a nice tax refund from the Internal Revenue Service or from your state, you can probably kiss that money goodbye if you haven’t paid child support in a while. The IRS will send as much of your refund as is necessary to satisfy your support arrears to your state’s child support enforcement unit. If your ex and your kids are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, your state can notify the IRS that it wants your tax refund when you’ve failed to pay for three months or more and you owe more than $150. If your ex isn’t receiving TANF, a tax refund offset won’t happen until your arrears amounts to $500 or more.

Liens Against Property

Another common method of collection in most states involves liens against your property. The H. Joseph Gitlin Law Office in Illinois indicates that if you fall far enough behind, your ex can get a judgment against you for the amount of your arrears, just as a creditor could. She – or the state – can use it to place liens against your home, your car or anything else of value you own.


Once the state places a lien on your property, you can’t sell or borrow against it while the lien is in place, -- at least not without satisfying the judgment from the proceeds.

Contempt of Court Actions

You’re not without recourse if there’s been a mistake or you’re honestly incapable of paying the support you owe. In most cases, the state or your ex must file with the court before taking action against you, asking the judge to hold you in contempt of court for violating the terms of the support order. If you don’t show up, the judge can issue a bench warrant for your immediate arrest. You’ll stay in jail until you come up with the purge amount – whatever percentage of your past due support the judge says you must pay to arrange for your release.

If you show up to plead your case, the legal website Nolo says there’s a strong possibility that you won’t go to jail because courts are well aware that you can’t earn money to support your children if you’re behind bars. An exception exists if you’re simply refusing to pay even though you have the means. The judge will try to work with you, such as by setting up a payment plan to help you get caught up. He can’t erase your arrears however. You’ll still owe the money -- it's just a matter of how you’re going to pay it.

About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She specializes in personal finance, divorce and family law, bankruptcy, and estate law, and she writes as the tax expert for The Balance. She is the author of more than 30 novels.

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