In 2019, a 73-year-old California woman was awarded $150,000 in back child support. The retired interior designer and Carlsbad resident raised her daughter alone after her ex-husband abandoned his family almost 50 years before. His daughter was a toddler when he left for Canada, and now, she is in her 5os.
The single mom juggled two jobs and had to take food stamps to keep her family afloat. Despite a court order, the estranged father never made a single child support payment, despite a court order. So, when her ex-husband moved south into Oregon, she dusted off the original court order from 1970 and marched down to the San Diego County Child Support Services office.
After being served with an order to appear in family court, he showed up to everyone’s surprise and was hit with the settlement for a half-century of non-payments.
Most situations concerning the non-payment of child support are not this dramatic. In most cases, divorced parents prioritize their children, working together to financially and emotionally support them.
But there are still noncustodial parents that reject court orders and refuse to pay child support. There are resources in place to remedy this problem by enforcing child support orders and collecting past-due payments.
The First Step for Enforcing Child Support
The first step in enforcing a child support order is ensuring that there is a court-ordered child support order in effect. Child support based on an oral agreement is not enough and will not stand up in court. An agreed amount for child support should be approved by a judge after the court decides the amount that is most beneficial for the child. Then, a child support order is drawn up based on mutual agreement.
If a divorcing couple cannot come to a mutual arrangement concerning support, an action for child support will need to be filed in the county superior court. This can be done in one of three ways:
- Either parent can fill out the proper paperwork and file it with the court
- Private attorneys can file a petition for child support on a parent’s behalf
- The California Department of Child Support Services (DCSS) can file for child support on a parent’s behalf
The Next Steps in Child Support Enforcement
After establishing that there is a child support order in place, enforcing that order and collecting outstanding payments can be done in several ways. One of these ways is a Motion for Contempt. Delinquent parents can be held in contempt of court, meaning a judge has found the act of nonpayment as willfully disobeying a court order.
A custodial parent seeking unpaid child support or the local DCSS can file a motion for contempt with the court, and these contempt orders can either be deemed as:
- Criminal – Delinquent parents can be ordered to pay fines or serve jail time.
- Civil – Delinquent parents can also be detained in jail, but they can be released after paying a specified amount of past-due support.
A judge can also combine the penalties for criminal and civil contempt orders.
California does have a statute of limitations on motions for contempt in relation to unpaid support. There is a three-year window to file a contempt action. The clock begins ticking from the due date of the outstanding payment that the delinquent parent did not pay.
Other Options for Collecting Child Support
After a contempt action is filed with the court, the delinquent parent will be served orders to attend a hearing in family court. If a judge finds the delinquent parent’s refusal to pay as willfully disobeying the court, there are a list of penalties that can be ordered as a recourse for the failure to pay. These may include:
- Delinquent parents could be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to no more than five days in jail. Usually, judges do not take this course of action because the fines may take away a parent’s money that could go to unpaid child support.
- Delinquent parents could be sentenced to as much as 120 hours of community service for the first and second contempt orders and as much as 240 hours for a third offense.
- Delinquent parents can be ordered to pay the custodial parent’s attorney’s fees and the associated costs of child support enforcement.
- Delinquent parents’ property can be sold to pay child support in rears.
- Delinquent parents may have a lien placed on their property.
- Delinquent parents’ wages can be withheld, or bank accounts can be garnished to pay outstanding child support.
- Delinquent parents can have their pension plan, veteran’s disability benefits, Social Security disability benefits, unemployment compensation disability benefits, workers compensation, lottery winnings, and all other income sources that are not exempt from garnishment can be rerouted to pay child support.
More Penalties for Nonpayment of Child Support
California law has other penalties in place to collect unpaid child support. Delinquent parents also end up on a list kept by DCSS. The names on the list are regularly reported to credit reporting agencies. Unpaid support may impact more than the family, it could result in negative credit ratings.
If a noncustodial parent is more than 30 days delinquent on their payments, the Department of Motor Vehicles can refuse to issue or renew their driver’s license. In some cases, a temporary license that is valid for 150 days can be granted to delinquent parents.
If the outstanding child support is not paid in that 150-day period, the DMV can refuse an extension on the temporary license or decide not to reissue a permanent license. California can revoke a delinquent parent’s license entirely if their child support payments fall behind by 120 days or more.
Facing the Problem with Honesty
If delinquent parents can prove to the court that they are not financially able to make the required child support payments, the court typically does not hold them in contempt. But this claim of an inability to pay must be accompanied by adequate evidence detailing their income and assets.
As evidenced in the above story, a child reaching the age of 18 has no bearing on the child support owed by the noncustodial parent. Unpaid child support is owed until it is totally paid or a settlement can be reached.