Failure To Pay Child Support Means Jail Time - Law Blog

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Failure To Pay Child Support Means Jail Time

Failing to pay child support can land you in trouble in many ways. You can lose your driving privileges, have your bank accounts frozen, lose passport privileges, or even be denied your tax refund, but possibly the harshest consequence is jail time. Since child support is a court order, failure to follow through with payments puts you in contempt of court–which can mean jail time. You can go to jail for up to 6 months for not paying child support.

Fail to Pay Child Support, Go to Jail, and Lose Job…Fail to Pay Child Support Again

Often times, a noncustodial parent will lose their job when sentenced to jail, which seems counterintuitive. Putting a parent in jail means they can’t work–which means they can’t pay child support.  Is that a reasonable consequence for failing to pay child support?

All 50 states believe it is and have some form of law that includes jail time for failing to pay child support. Regardless of the state, the common concept in any family case involving children is what’s in the best interest of the child. Child support is for the care of the child (not the other parent or guardian), which means the money is to be used to provide for the child’s food, shelter, clothing, health and medical care, and educational expenditures. Child Support Services

Roughly 45% of the families in child support programs in the United States have budgets that come from the noncustodial parent. No income can be generated while in jail, which means the parent cannot pay any child support and that’s certainly not in the best interests of the child.  Not only does a noncustodial parent’s lack of income affect the care of their child, but losing a job due to serving time looks bad to potential future employers–making it even harder for the noncustodial parent to pay child support payments once out of jail. Let’s not forget, payments don’t stop being owed while you’re locked up!

What are You Supposed to Do If You Can’t Afford the Payments?

Child support is based off income and once child support is ordered, the only way to get that number changed is by filing for a modification. Sounds easy right? Think again.  Most states don’t make it very easy to file for a modification–you must show proof of a change in circumstances so substantial and continuing, that you cannot afford the current court-ordered child support payment.

Even if you can prove that, a modification won’t change any amount of arrears, or past due child support, you owe. It doesn’t take long for arrears to add up to thousands upon thousands of dollars if you aren’t paying child support and then it becomes even harder to pay your balance in full, especially if you’ve just been released from jail. Once released, some judges may even give the arrear holder a very short amount of time to pay their child support balance in full and, if not, back to jail they go.

So, what’s the Alternative?

The system was originally designed to punish parents that were hiding assets or just not paying. Unfortunately, the system often results in the poor being punished for payments they can’t afford in the first place.

In an effort to combat the problem, programs have been created that provide employment services to noncustodial parents within the child support system. The federal Office of Child Enforcement has created grants that are given to a select few select states to fund these programs. The employment programs focus on:

  • Case management
  • Employment-oriented services: job placement and retention services
  • Fatherhood/parenting activities using peer support
  • Child support order modification

Texas’ Attorney General’s office has had some success with their Noncustodial Parent Choices (NPC), a similar program that offers support to noncustodial parents behind on support by helping them become economically self-sufficient. In the first 4 years of operation, the program brought close to $30 million back into the child support system.

Virginia’s Intensive Case Monitoring Program focuses on a problem-solving approach, rather than a punitive one. Jail time is becoming a last resort in many of their courts and, instead, many child support offices are working with the noncustodial parents to help them find employment and provide other resources they may need to be successful. Of Virginia’s 320,000 child support enforcement cases in 2014, only 6,000 ended up with jail sentences.

Focusing on punitive measures rather than solving the root of the problem–lack of income–only hurts the care of the child in the end. Promoting self-sufficiency seems to be the key to getting these children the support they need. Isn’t that the outcome we all want anyway?  That’s not to say there aren’t those that don’t deserve to have the book thrown at them, but for the parents that really can’t pay due to their economic circumstances, the alternatives are better for all.


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