child support

At one time, child support enforcement was lax. Noncustodial parents, mostly fathers who were disparagingly referred to as “Deadbeat Dads,” could cross state lines and escape the enforcement efforts of the state that ordered them to pay to support their children. The inability to enforce child support awards led to many children growing up in poverty, especially as the divorce rate rose following WWII and climbed to its height in the 1980’s and early 1990’s.chart showing divorce rates across time

When the parent who was ordered to pay child support didn’t pay, the children suffered. Many families had to turn to the government for help. Poverty creates a vicious cycle that made the children less likely to be successful as adults, less likely to complete their educations, and more likely to divorce when they were adults.

In an effort to stem this tide and collect child support from the non-custodial parent instead of benefits funded by state and federal taxes, Federal Laws that allowed for Federal child support enforcement efforts were enacted in 1992 and 1998.

“Child support payments play an important role in reducing child poverty, lifting approximately one million people out of poverty each year. In 2014, the Child Support Enforcement program collected $28.2 billion in child support payments for the families in State and Tribal caseloads.”

Before the Child Support Recovery Act (CSRA) in 1992, no mechanism existed for Federal enforcement of child support orders. The new Federal law was designed to prosecute the worst offenders but it had baby teeth—misdemeanor penalties that were not enough to make serious offenders comply with their child support orders. CSRA helped, but it did not solve the problem. The Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act (DPPA) of 1998 has bigger teeth, including new categories of federal felonies for the most deplorable offenders who meet specific criteria and willfully fail to pay child support.

Child Support: State Enforcement             

The Department of Health and Human Services in the State where the child resides is the first step in the child support enforcement process. The DHHS website states their purpose and function is:

The child support program does more than collect support for families. We locate parents, establish paternity, and work with families to set child support orders.

Whether you’re a mom, dad, or grandparent, we’ll help make child support a reliable source of income for your children.

The court order for child support can require the supporting parent to pay child support directly to the custodial parent or pay it through DHHS. When support is not paid in a timely manner, DHHS can find assets of the supporting parent and take funds to cover child support, it can also take punitive actions against parents who do not pay support. It is important to remember that child support orders are a court order. Violating a court order can be considered contempt of court. Contempt of court charges can lead to fines and/or jail time. DHHS has the ability to collect late child support by:

  • Two types of income withholding
    • Voluntary
    • Involuntary (wage garnishment)
  • Intercepting state or federal income tax refunds
  • Withhold other one-time or recurring federal payment such as retirement, salary, payments to vendors or contractors, and other federal payments
  • Levy financial accounts (take money out of a checking, savings, or investment account)
  • Set liens on property
  • Report child support debts to credit bureaus

chart showing child support collection methods

DHHS can also take punitive actions including:

  • File contempt of court proceedings, which may result in a jail sentence if the non-custodial parent is found in contempt of court for willfully failing to pay child support.
  • Deny a passport
  • Suspend licenses
    • Driver’s license
    • Occupational license (i.e. medical, dental, therapeutic)
    • Hunting or fishing licenses
  • When the supporting parent is out of state, refer the parent for federal enforcement efforts

The DHHS will assist parents by connecting parents to employment and other services.

Child Support: Federal Enforcement

Federal enforcement can be involved when a parent and the supported child are not in the same state and child support is behind more than one year or over $5,000. These limits are a significant point for individuals whose child support obligations are substantial to consider because one or two months may meet the $5,000 threshold and the law states “1 year or over $5,000” not “1 year and over $5,000.”

Past due > 1 year


over $5,000

Child resides in another state

Past due > 2 years


over $10,000

Child resides in another state

Cross state lines or flees the country to avoid child support that is

Past due > 1 year


over $5,000

Fines and up to 6 months in prison

Fines and up to 2 years in prison

Fines and up to 2 years in prison

18 U.S.C. § 228(a)(1)

18 U.S.C.§ 228(a)(3)

18 U.S.C. § 228(a)(2)

Adding teeth to the Federal program has reduced the amount owed to states that provide welfare benefits to families when a supporting parent is behind on child support payments. The overdue amounts owed to families who are not on welfare have increased as reflected in the following chart:

chart showing child support arrears by TANF vs Non TANF

Enforcement efforts provide increased economic support for many families. Child support enforcement efforts are at least partially successful in over 70% of the cases every month.

child support enforcement collections

In 64% of the cases, child support enforcement efforts are successful every month. Stable income is important. For a family with few resources, even a single late payment of child support can lead to a downward economic spiral because of the chain reaction that can occur when late fees consume needed income.

child support enforcement collections pie chart

Federal Changes: Flexibility, Efficiency, and Modernization in Child Support Enforcement

In response to an executive order issued by President Obama, some of the Federal Child Support Enforcement Rules were changed in 2016.

Change in Circumstances

When a supporting parent experiences a change of circumstances, it is important to communicate that change to the court. If a temporary setback occurs, such as unemployment or an illness that keeps the supporting parent out of work, adjustments in support may be made to avoid creating arrearages that will subject the supporting parent to penalties.

Child Support: Collecting Via Income Withholding

The new rule makes collecting child support via income withholding better:

  • It standardizes and streamlines payment processing so that employers are not unduly burdened by this otherwise highly effective support enforcement tool.
  • It removes outdated barriers to electronic communication and document management, including allowing documents to be stored electronically.

Child Support: Treatment while Incarcerated

The 2016 changes provide an important safeguard for incarcerated parents. In the past, many states considered being incarcerated (in jail or prison) a form of “voluntary unemployment” and would impute the income the parent could have made. There were numerous problems with this way of categorizing income for inmates.

It was never the intention of child support to be punitive. Characterizing time spent as an inmate as “voluntary unemployment” prevented the child support award from being adjusted based on the Federal review and adjustment law in section 466(a)(10) of the Act which requires a child support award to be adjusted upward or downward when a substantial change in circumstances occurs.

The new rules prohibit states from treating incarceration as “voluntary unemployment.”

Studies find that incarcerated parents leave prison with an average of $15,000 to $30,000 or more in unpaid child support, with no means to pay upon release.

chart showing which % of states that treat incarceration as voluntary unemployment for child support

Failing to allow for adjustments in child support obligations while incarcerated undermines a successful return to society after the inmate is released from jail or prison. The research in this area indicated the policy did not support the good of families and society.

Child Support: Permanent Inability to Pay

Under some specific circumstances, a child support case may be closed without collecting arrearages or continuing to attempt to pursue payments. Those situations include:

  • The agency determines that throughout the duration of the child’s minority (until after the child becomes an adult, the noncustodial parent cannot pay support and shows no evidence of support potential because the parent has been institutionalized in a psychiatric facility, is incarcerated, or has a medically-verified total and permanent disability.
  • The noncustodial parent’s only income is from Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or both SSI and SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance).
  • The noncustodial parent is a citizen of, and lives in, a foreign country that does not have Federal or State reciprocity and does not work for an organization with headquarters or offices in the United States.
Child Support: Use of Contempt of Court

The new regulations make a bright line distinction between the failure to pay child support because the defendant didn’t have the resources and willful failure to pay where the defendant has the ability to pay but chooses not to do so. Alternatives to incarceration are encouraged when failure to pay is not willful. Attempting to hide assets from the court is considered willful failure to pay.

The 2016 Flexibility, Efficiency, and Modernization in Child Support Enforcement changes should free up state resources that were previously involved in chasing support that could not be collected. This will increase the resources available to pursue collectible child support obligations.

In 2011, 26.1% of custodial parents contacted support enforcement offices in their states for help enforcing child support orders. That is a 38% decrease from the 42.2% who requested help before the Federal laws that improved enforcement efforts were enacted.

Custodial parents who are selective about the individuals they chose as mates have a good chance of collecting child support while they raise the children of the union even if the relationship does not last until the children are adults.

A citizen of a country that does not have agreements or treaties with the United States for child support enforcement is a riskier mate than one from a country where child support orders can be enforced.

Other risk factors include illegal activities, significant mental illnesses, and chronic diseases that will result in disability before the children are adults.

chart showing poverty status of custodial parents by gender

About 4.2 million custodial parents lived in poverty in 2011 which is 29% of all custodial parents. This represents a poverty rate that is double that of the general population. Applying risk management strategies to your life decisions, including attaining an education and being careful who you chose for a mate, drafting a prenuptial agreement that protects your interests before you get married, and hiring a professional Family Law Attorney to represent you if you separate or divorce, can help you make sure you are one of the 71% of custodial parents who are not living in poverty. The divorce rate is generally higher for individuals who have less education.


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North Carolina Family Law Offices

Gastonia Office

174 S. South Street Suite 301
Gastonia, NC 28052
(704) 865-9011

Charlotte Office

400 S. Tyron St. Suite 950
Charlotte, NC 28202
(704) 865-9011

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434 Fayetteville Street Suite 2300
Raleigh, NC 27601
(919) 372-3670

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