Governments in the United States expect both parents to provide financial, medical, and emotional support for a child, even if they live in separate households.
When a child is in the custody of only one parent — the custodial parent — that parent can request a child support order to require the other — noncustodial or obligated — parent to provide financial child support.
This court order gives the government authority to collect and encourage payment. Nonpayment accrues debt, often referred to as “back child support,” and can result in financial or legal trouble for the obligated parent.
States or tribes administer child support, from setting orders to collecting and distributing payments, and the rules vary from state to state. Find your agency’s contact information through the federal government’s Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) for more details about your situation.
What Is Back Child Support?
Legally known as arrearage, back child support is any past-due, unpaid child support payment. An obligated parent who owes back child support is considered “in arrears.”
OCSE, an office of the Administration for Children and Families within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, oversees the national child support program by working with state and tribal agencies to collect payment, locate parents, establish paternity, and set child support orders.
OCSE treats back child support as a debt that must be repaid, and it — along with state agencies — has substantial power to collect or encourage payment and interest through civil and legal action.
Who Pays Back Child Support?
Any obligated parent who has missed any child support payment owes back child support in full. This obligation persists even after a child reaches the age of majority.
Any arrearage equal to one month’s payment triggers automatic income withholding, including wage garnishment, tax refund seizure, or property liens as the child support office deems necessary and possible.
Who Receives Back Child Support Payments?
Each state runs a payment processing center, or state disbursement unit (SDU), that receives child support payments and routes them to the custodial parent.
A state can collect payment and keep it — not passing it on to the custodial parent — in some cases, including:
- Fees. Some states deduct fees from child support payments before sending them to custodial parents.
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). If the custodial parent receives public assistance under TANF, some states require them to sign over their child support payments to the state. Some states let custodial parents receive full child support and TANF payments simultaneously.
- Incarceration of the Custodial Parent. While a custodial parent is in jail or prison, they can’t have custody of the child. The noncustodial parent, family members, or the county or state could gain temporary or long-term custody of the child, which could affect where child support goes.
- Change in Custody. A state doesn’t automatically reroute payments if the child moves into the custody of someone new, such as a grandparent, other family member, or foster family. The new guardian can file in court to ask the state to redirect payments to them, including back payments. In the case of foster care, the state is likely to keep payments to cover costs associated with public assistance for the child.
What Happens If You Don’t Pay Back Child Support?
An obligated parent who misses child support payments can face serious financial and legal consequences.
The penalties for missed payments and methods for collecting back child support vary by state, and states can request additional enforcement from OCSE in some cases.
Consequences of not paying child support include:
- Credit Reporting. A state child support office is legally obligated to report past-due child support to credit reporting agencies as debt.
- Income Withholding. The government can take up to 65% of your disposable income (55% if you have a second family) automatically from your paycheck if your payments are in arrears for 12 weeks or more.
- Tax Refund Intercept. Each state has laws that require intercepting state income tax refunds to cover back child support. States can also request a federal income tax refund offset for past-due support of $500 or more. The federal government can also withhold other federal payments, such as retirement payments, salary, vendor or contractor payments, and one-time payments such as an economic stimulus payment.
- Suspension of Licenses. The government may suspend your driver’s license or professional, hunting, or fishing licenses.
- Denial of Passport. If you owe $2,500 or more in back child support and the state submits that information to OCSE, the State Department will deny you a passport until the state requests your removal from the Passport Denial Program, you pay off all your back child support, or the state deletes your case.
- Levy on Financial Accounts. In some states, the government can work with your bank to collect past-due child support directly from your account.
- Lien on Property. The government can restrict you from selling or borrowing against property (such as a vehicle or home) until you pay child support debt. Some states require obligated parents to pledge property to guarantee payment, like collateral, so they could seize the property to cover the debt.
- Jail Time. Willfully avoiding paying child support when you’re able to pay could constitute civil contempt because it’s a failure to comply with a court order. The state (if you’re in arrears for public assistance) or the custodial parent can ask for a hearing to find you in contempt. Civil contempt can result in up to 180 days incarceration.
- Federal Prosecution. A back child support case can go to a federal prosecutor if you owe support for a child who lives in a different state, or if the debt is more than a year past due or more than $5,000. A conviction could put you in prison for up to six months. Child support that’s more than two years past due or more than $10,000 can result in a criminal felony charge and up to two years in prison.
Some states set a statute of limitations on collecting back child support, while others treat it like any other debt and collect until it’s paid in full.
How to Avoid Owing Back Child Support
To avoid missing child support payments and owing back child support:
- Know the Details of the Order. Most child support orders require payment until the child reaches the age of majority — 18 years old in most states. But the order can specify a later date, such as an older age or when the child graduates from high school. Orders might also go longer if the child has a disability.
- Make Payments Through Proper Channels. Your child support order specifies how you’re required to make payments. Gifts or money you give the child or custodial parent outside of that agreement don’t count toward your owed support.
- Keep Records Updated. If you’ve been paying through automatic paycheck withholding and you change employers, update your state office right away so it can transfer withholding to your new employer and avoid missed payments.
- Apply for Unemployment. If you’re unemployed, collect the unemployment benefits you’re eligible for. The state can intercept some payments to put toward child support.
- Change the Order. Either parent can ask for a child support order to be reviewed if your income or living situation changes substantially, OCES explains. The state will review your order against state guidelines for child support amounts and determine whether your situation has changed enough to warrant a new payment amount.
- File an Income Tax Return. Child support agencies can intercept your state and federal tax refunds to pay back child support, which could reduce or pay off your debt if you’ve missed payments throughout the year. However, those missed payments still leave you at risk of financial and legal consequences for nonpayment.
Filing for bankruptcy won’t eliminate your back child support debt — but it could discharge other debts and free up money in your monthly budget.
What to Do If You Owe Back Child Support
If you owe back child support and can pay the past-due amount, make that payment through your state agency just as you would any other payment.
If you can’t pay the full amount, you have options. Contact a lawyer in your area who specializes in family law to discuss avenues to pursue. OCSE lists states with debt compromise policies for back child support. Options include:
- Re-Determining Back Child Support. Check for errors in the amount you owe. If you can show proof of your payments, you can ask a court to recalculate the amount you owe.
- Equitable Forgiveness. If your child lived with you for any time during the period you should have paid child support, a court might forgive a portion of your debt.
- Suspension of Interest. You might have interest requirements waived, as long as you commit to a plan to pay off your back child support by a set date.
- Reasonable Payment Schedule. Back child support is technically due immediately, but you can petition for a new payment schedule to avoid civil contempt.
- Debt Settlement. Agree to an alternative arrangement with the custodial parent, such as paying a lump sum and waiving remaining debt. To eliminate your back child support obligation, you must make these arrangements through the court. Unofficial private arrangements and payments won’t count toward what you owe.
- Loan to Pay Off the Back Child Support Debt. In some states, you’ll owe a hefty interest rate for back child support debt. If you can’t get the interest waived, consider a low-interest loan to pay your back child support. You can use a personal loan through a lender like Upstart or a home equity line of credit from Figure.com.
Whatever route you choose, keep making payments in any amount you can. This doesn’t make you immune to consequences like wage garnishment or jail time, but it acts as evidence of your good faith effort to pay what you owe, which could be useful in requesting alternative payment arrangements or avoiding civil contempt. It’ll also reduce the interest, if any applies, you pay on the debt.
3 Ways to Earn Extra Income to Pay Back Child Support
If you don’t have room in your monthly budget for child support payments and don’t want to take out a loan, see if you can earn extra money to meet the obligation. You have a lot of options for earning money on your own schedule so you can fit it around another job or school.
1. Pick up a Side Gig
Set your own schedule and work as much or as little as you choose through the gig economy. You can make money by serving your community through gig apps that let you get paid for things like:
- Food or grocery delivery through a company like Instacart
- Renting your space on Neighbor.com
- Walking or boarding dogs through Rover
- House cleaning
- Repairs and maintenance tasks
You can find other side gig ideas here.
2. Start a Small Side Business
- Teaching English online to non-native speakers (we recommend VIPkid
- Becoming an online tutor
- Freelance writing, editing, design, translation, development, and other services
- Being a customer service agent through LiveOps
- Becoming a virtual assistant
- Offering accounting and bookkeeping services
3. Sell or Rent Your Stuff
If you don’t have anything lying around but have — or can borrow — a little money, consider buying items from thrift stores to flip through online or local sales.
If don’t want to get rid of anything for good, sharing economy apps make it easy to rent your clothes, tools, car, home, or parking spots too.
What to Do If Someone Owes You Back Child Support
If the noncustodial parent has missed child support payments, contact your state agency to find out available methods to enforce the child support order.
Don’t settle with the other parent without involving a court, even if you plan to negotiate and settle the debt for a smaller amount. A personal agreement won’t eliminate the noncustodial parent’s obligation to the existing debt, and it leaves you with little recourse if they don’t pay the negotiated amount.
If the state hasn’t taken action on its own to enforce the order, speak with a lawyer, your local district attorney, or your state attorney’s office about requesting a hearing to consider enforcement and collection options.
Some states send you child support payments and pursue back child support from the obligated parent without involving you. This lets you continue to provide for your child without worrying about overdue payments the obligated parent owes.
If you owe back child support, your safest avenue is to pay it as soon as you can. Eliminating the debt can help you avoid financial and legal consequences as severe as wage garnishment and jail time.
Any time you can’t make child support payments, contact the custodial parent and the state agency right away to make alternative arrangements. Demonstrating your willingness to pay and cooperating with everyone involved can go a long way in protecting you from legal recourse.
You have options if you simply can’t pay what you owe, including reducing the payment amount and having the debt forgiven. Talk with a lawyer or your state’s child support agency to learn which options are available to you and how to pursue them.
Have you experienced issues with back child support? What did you find helpful?