Can I sue for child support enforcement?

Yes, you can sue for child support enforcement. Although state law varies, child support is normally secured in three steps: (1) establishing paternity, (2) receiving a court order, and (3) enforcing the order. Once obtained, a child support order can be enforced by state and federal authorities.

Overdue child support is said to be in “arrears. “A parent who fails to correct arrears in child support can face serious legal consequences. In extreme cases, criminal prosecution is an option.

After discussing child support enforcement at the state and federal levels, this article explores the penalties a non-compliant parent may face.

National Child Support Enforcement

In the past, the enforcement of child support was left to the states. The inconsistency has sown confusion and left bad parents slipping through the cracks.

In 1975, Congress responded by requiring all states to manage their child support programs based on minimum federal standards. Because this law is in Title IV-D of the Social Security Act, cases handled by these programs are sometimes referred to as IV-D cases.

Congress also created the Child Support Enforcement Office (OCSE). This office works with state and tribal agencies develop programs based on global guidelines. It also provides many helpful resources for parents and professionals trying to enforce court-ordered child support. These include a complete manual accessible directly to parents, as well as a parent locator service available by working with your local child welfare service.

Despite federal standards, child support laws still vary widely from state to state. Therefore, a local family law attorney can be a crucial ally in securing overdue child support payments.

National Child Support Statistics

Despite strong government programs, ensuring that minors receive financial support from both parents remains a persistent social problem. The Census Bureau Reports that nearly 22 million children had a parent living outside their home in 2018. Thirty percent of these children were living in poverty (i.e. three times the rate of children living with both of their parents).

Unfortunately, mothers are disproportionately affected compared to fathers. In 2017, 44.7% of custodial mothers participated in at least one public assistance program compared to 26.2% of custodial fathers.

Interstate enforcement of child support

In many cases, problems arise when a child or parent leaves the state. To ensure that deadbeat parents do not evade child support obligations by changing states, all 50 states have adopted the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA). This law establishes a basis for making, varying, and enforcing child support orders across state lines.

Prior to UIFSA, two states could each issue a support order in one case. This has led to confusion and delays in enforcing child support obligations. UIFSA solved the problem by allowing only one “control order” at a time. Once a control order is issued in one state, it can be filed with the child support enforcement agency in another state. The registered order can then be enforced in the new state in the same way as in the issuing state.

To learn more, see Enforcement of child support under UIFSA and how can i find a parent for child support?

Sanctions for bad paying parents

Deadbeat parents can face several legal consequences if they don’t comply with a child support order.

Not criminal

Child support enforcement agencies are equipped with many tools to encourage or force parents to pay child support arrears. These include:

  1. Suspension of license. Public child support agencies can suspend your driver’s license if child support is not paid. They can also suspend business, professional, professional, and recreational (eg, hunting and fishing) licenses.
  2. Passport refusal. If you owe $2,500 or more in child support, you cannot receive a US passport. If you already have a passport, its use may be restricted.
  3. Withholding from income. A court can also order that a parent’s wages be garnished by their employer. Federal law captures up to 50% of a parent’s income. This increases to 60% if the parent does not support another child or spouse.
  4. Tax refund compensation. The Federal Tax Refund Offset Program allows the government to withhold a parent’s tax refund. The funds are then sent to state agencies to offset the child support debt.
  5. Child support privilege. A lien can be placed on a parent’s property. A privilege is a legal claim held by a creditor against a debtor’s property (for example, cars or real estate). The lien can block sales of the property until the child support debt is paid. It can also have an impact on the debtor’s credit report.
  6. Enter the property. In some cases, a relative’s assets can be seized directly, including funds in a bank account.


In extreme cases, intentional non-payment of child support can result in a prison sentence. There are three federal crimes associated with non-payment of child support:

  • If the overdue amount for a child who lives in another state is (1) over 1 year or (2) over $5,000, willful non-payment is subject to a fine, up to 6 months jail, or both.
  • If the overdue amount for a child who lives in another state is (1) more than 2 years overdue or (2) more than $10,000, willful non-payment is subject to a fine, up to 2 years in prison, or both.
  • Interstate or international travel to intentionally avoid repaying child support that (1) is more than one year late or (2) more than $5,000 is subject to a fine, up to 2 years jail, or both.

Despite these laws, most child support lawsuits are handled at the state level, and child support arrears must first be addressed at the state level before federal prosecutions take place.

Intentional non-payment of child support is also a state level crime, ranging from misdemeanors to felonies. Penalties can include fines (a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands) and jail time (months to years). Factors include the amount of child support owed, late payments, and whether the default is recurring.

A lawyer can help you

The law places special emphasis on the welfare of minors. This is reflected in the national child support enforcement system, as well as in criminal codes across the country.

Parents trying to enforce child support orders have many tools at their disposal. If you need help enforcing a child support order, a lawyer experienced in child support can help you understand the law and use these tools to your advantage.

About Charles D. Goolsby

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