Married, single or divorced, every parent has a legal duty to help financially support his minor children. Judges order a parent to pay child support to enforce this obligation, and unpaid child support can often be taken from any source of income, including an accident settlement. However, state laws differ and many exceptions apply, so it may be wise to get legal advice.
Child Support Obligation
Children are entitled to financial support from their parents to meet their basic needs, but only to the extent that the parents have income. The court determines the income of each parent in figuring child support payments. Most periodic payments are considered income for this purpose, including salaries, pensions, worker compensation benefits, Social Security benefits, and even regular monetary gifts from relatives. Some regular payments, like SSI disability payments, are specifically excluded from child support calculations in some states. In many states, accident settlements that are paid out in monthly installments, also called structured settlements, are included in a parent's income in child support calculations.
Garnishing Accident Settlement Payments
Generally, states allow one parent to garnish the wages or other income source of the other parent to be sure child support is paid. Garnishment is a procedure where the child support payment amounts are withheld from a parent's monthly check and paid directly to the custodial parent. The amount that can be taken depends on the parent's income and the formula used in the jurisdiction. With few exceptions, any regular income received by a parent can be garnished for child support. Accident settlements that are paid out periodically can generally be garnished for child support in those states that count them as income in establishing child support. In some other states, they are counted in the child support calculation, but cannot be garnished.
Attachment for Child Support Arrears
Parents who owe but do not pay their child support -- sometimes called deadbeat parents -- are subject to a range of collection methods. The parent owed the support must first get a judgment from the court in the total amount of the arrears. Then she can garnish that parent's wages for the past due amounts. She can also attach other property belonging to the deadbeat parent including bank accounts, real estate, vehicles, stock and accounts receivable. Some states allow the custodial parent to collect back child support by attaching accident settlements, and even provide the means to create a lien against a potential insurance award.
Exceptions for Accident Settlements
State laws vary wildly about whether and what part of a lump sum accident settlement can be taken for child support. Generally, the question is not answered directly in the statutes but determined by the courts, so you may find different results even within a single state. California courts have ruled that any part of an accident settlement that represents lost wages can be taken for child support, while the amount of damages awarded that compensates for pain and suffering cannot. In other states, courts have ruled that no part of a lump sum accident payment may be taken for child support because it is a one-time payment rather than a recurring one.