What to Do When Child Support Doesn’t Come

Even at the best of times, joint custody arrangements can be tense and difficult. Even with the best of intentions old grudges and issues often come back to haunt a post-divorce relationship, and the best of intentions aren't always there. These issues can easily explode when child support payments are delayed or missing.

It's very easy to let emotions take control in these situations, but it is important to keep your cool and stay smart. You want to resolve the issue as fast and as easily as possible, not to cause a major meltdown. Missed payments are an actual or potential legal situation, and your actions can make the difference between a successful resolution and a continuing disaster.

Document Everything
Even before any issues emerge, it's critically important to keep a file with all pertinent documents. Keep a record of all payments, when they are made, and any deficiencies. Include any relevant communications with your ex, and communicate in writing whenever possible.

Get a Child Support Order
Most child support arrangements are set out in an order issued by the divorce court. If you don't already have a child support order and the non-custodial parent is only bound by a less official agreement, you will need to get a formal order, which usually requires filing a motion with your local family court. Other agreements that have not been court-ordered are not legally binding. The order should provide the amount to be paid, how often, and how the support is to be paid, plus any other financial obligations for both parents.

Talk it Out Like Grown Ups
If it is possible to talk with the non-custodial parent to find out what's going on and when you can expect payments, do it, even if it's a painful prospect. While it's not okay for a parent to shirk their financial responsibilities, they may have a good reason for their actions. You may be able to work out an agreement where they pay part of what they owe. Something is better than nothing, in this case, and it may keep the non-custodial parent from getting far enough behind that the state takes legal action. If a parent wants to skate out on their obligations, there's a limit to what can be done to collect that money. Keeping things civil and saving legal action for the last resort works in everyone's favor (you, your child, and the other parent).

Identify Your State's Procedures
The regulations concerning support payments vary from state to state. Find out the protocol to report missing payments in your state, and get familiar with the procedure and the routes it can take. What happens next in your state may help you to determine your next course of action.

Get In Touch with Child Support Enforcement
Most states have some form of child support enforcement agency. You'll need a copy of your support order. You can report late or missing payments to them, and they'll take what legal actions they can. Depending on how far behind payments are and your state's policies, the non-custodial parent may have their wages or tax returns garnished, recreational licenses or driver's license suspended, or even have a warrant issued for their arrest if non-payment continues. Most of the time, this is the best action if you can't talk your ex into paying up. In many cases, the threat of enforcement action will convince a deadbeat parent to take obligations more seriously.

If you feel that the responsible agency isn't doing their duty, you can file paperwork in your local family court for a violation of enforcement of child support, which may push the agency into taking up your cause more effectively. Before you take this step, you need to do thorough research into the agency's obligations, and you need a clear idea of exactly why you think they haven't done enough.

Hire a Lawyer
It's important to note that enforcement agencies, while often helpful to parents in these situations, are often overworked and may at times be less than helpful. If you've contacted them already and find that they've not done enough to help you, you might think about hiring a lawyer to help. This is not an ideal scenario, and you'll want to be sure you've tried everything else before taking this step. Legal fees can add up quickly, and even the best lawyer can't collect support money that your children's non-custodial parent doesn't have (or is hiding). In some circumstances, a lawyer may be able to push the process into effective resolution, but you'll want to be careful about who you hire. This database of free and low-cost legal resources may help.

Take It to Court
Going to court is really a last resort. Legal fees are expensive at any time, but once you go to court, they can become prohibitive, and you can easily pay out more than you were owed in support payments. At the very least, ensure that it's worth the hassle before you decide to head to court. No matter how justifiably angry you are, don't get caught up in the spitefulness that can lead to a lengthy (and expensive) court battle.

Don't Confuse Custody Agreements and Child Support Orders
Many parents who are owed child support payments think of retaliating by limiting the other parent's visitation privileges, which can be a serious mistake. If a joint custody or visitation agreement is in place, you cannot keep your child from seeing their other parent as agreed because they aren't paying on schedule. That simply means that you're violating the custody agreement while they are violating the child support order. You can be held legally responsible for violating that order, which will only undermine your chance of a successful resolution. If you believe that it's unsafe or unhealthy for your child to spend time with their non-custodial parent, you've got to file a motion to have the custody agreement changed.

Be Forewarned
If the non-custodial parent continues to miss payments, they may be arrested and sentenced to up to 6 months in jail for contempt charges (not adhering to the court order). A jailed parent can't make any payments, and pursuing this kind of punishment is counterproductive in all but the most extreme cases.

It can be very disheartening and make it difficult to cover expenses when payments are late or not paid, but keeping a cool head and following the appropriate course of action may help you get the money you're owed. Remember to keep all records, familiarize yourself with your state's process and procedures, and go through the system. Your goal is to get the money that you are owed and to keep it flowing. Letting anger and resentment get the better of you is usually not going to get yu closer to that goal, no matter how justified your feelings might be!