The Post-Divorce-Parenting Glossary

Divorced-Parenting Term

Unpaid child support

What is unpaid child support?

Unpaid child support refers to child support that is ordered by a family court, but not paid in full.

How many divorced partners have unpaid child support issues?

According to statistics from the United States Census Bureau, 50 percent of parents to be receiving child support don’t get the full amount that is due. Approximately 25 percent of these parents see partial payments while the other 25 percent don’t receive any child support at all that is legally due.

What is child support designed to be used for?

Different states have different interpretations for defining the purpose of child support, but in general, the idea is to reduce the number of impoverished children living in single-parent families, and to diminish the economic impact on children, following a divorce or separation.

How is child support calculated?

There are three commonly used child support models that are currently used in child support calculations. These are as follows:

The percentage model
This model of child support calculations uses the noncustodial parent’s income, and derives a child support payment based off of that amount only. The percentage is increased when more children are involved.

The income share model
This model uses the combined incomes for both parents (custodial parent and noncustodial parent), and allows for deviations depending the needs of the children involved.

The Melson Model
This model, named after Judge Melson who first used it, is based on the idea that support is not a possibility unless that person's basic needs are first met. It is more complex than the income shares model; however, it attempts to address significant realities that are not considered in other child support models.

Why do parents choose to not pay their court-ordered child support?

There are several reasons that noncustodial parents state for not paying their child support, even though they are breaking the law by not doing so. It should be noted that not paying child support has significant consequences, and could lead to jail time in some situations.  To truly reduce the instances of unpaid child support, it is important to understand why some people don’t pay.

Noncustodial parent not on board
This is perhaps the largest factor that leads to unpaid child support. When parents are able to work out a mutually acceptable agreement, the likelihood that the child support will be paid is greatly increased, versus imposed child support that the noncustodial parent had no say in.

Noncustodial parent feels rejected
In high-conflict situations, the custodial parent and noncustodial parent may have issues that cannot be rectified. If the noncustodial parent feels like they lose a case or they are being treated unfairly, they often retaliate by not paying their required child support. This can spiral to parental alienation and more conflict.

Noncustodial parent cannot afford it
The Melson Model for child support calculations is a more modern and realistic attempt to address the needs of both parents in child support calculation amounts. It considers the reality that if the noncustodial parent’s basic needs are not met, child support is virtually impossible to consider.  Still, no child support model is perfect, and if the noncustodial parent is struggling financially, they might not be able to afford their child support obligations.

Noncustodial parent feels that the custodial parent is using child support for non child-related purposes
This is a common complaint among child support payers – that the custodial parent is not allocating the money to the children, but is instead using it for their own purposes. Feeling this way can lead some payers to illegally withhold child support.

Do parents have a legal obligation to pay child support?

If a payer remains delinquent in their child support the court can hold him or her in contempt of court, which can translate into serving time in jail, significant fines, or both.

What are some ways that unpaid child support can be collected from a non-paying parent?

In response to child support not being paid, federal and state laws were established to enforce child support payments.

A wage deduction order is a possible way of dealing with unpaid child support.  Passed in 1994, wage deduction orders permit child support to be directly withdrawn (or garnished) from the payer's wages. Typically, a deduction notice will be sent from the court to an employer to send a portion of the parent’s hourly wage or salary to a state agency, to be sent to the custodial parent. If the payer changes employment frequently or is self employed, wage deduction is less effective in securing child support.

Securing unpaid child support through tax refund interceptions is another strategy, where state and federal tax refunds are intercepted. Although this can be effective if there is a significant tax refund, typically it is only useful for one year as the payer often adjust deductions to have smaller tax refunds in the future.

A state may exercise its authority to place a lien on a payer's property such as real estate and vehicles, to collect unpaid child support. The state can mandate that the payer forfeit the property, and that it be sold in order to reimburse the custodial parent for child support in arrears.  Some states have the authority to revoke a parent's driver's license and/or professional license if they are delinquent in paying their child support.

Can child support be modified?

Yes.  Child support can be modified. The following are some common reasons why child support may be modified:

  • The income for either parent has changed significantly;
  • A parent has become unemployed;
  • A parent is in jail;
  • A parent, involved in another relationship, is supporting another child;
  • The amount of time a parent has with the children has changed;
  • The child care, health care, or education expenses for the child have changed; and/or
  • The standards controlling how child support is calculated has been modified.

There are two possible scenarios that can happen in child support modifications: 1) the parents can agree, or 2) they can disagree.

If the divorced or separated parent agree on a child support modification, they may create a stipulation and provide that document to a family court judge to sign. This then becomes the new court order.

If the parents do not agree on the proposed child support modification, the parent requesting the change must file a "modification" with the family court so the judge can review the request and decide if the change is warranted.

What are possible negative outcomes associated with not paying child support?

  • Child may not have their needs met
  • Crime (Could go to jail)
  • Looks bad in court if you ever attempt to modify the child-custody court order.

How much does it cost to raise a child?

Many studies have been performed to estimate or report the amount it costs to raise a child. Every study is very complex for several reasons:

The more money a family makes, the more they tend to spend on discretionary items
Also, studies often include housing, which is an issue that skews results higher for wealthier families.  Expenses vary greatly based on geography, urban vs. rural, etc.
Expenses decrease with additional children on a per child basis, which makes it difficult to accurately project and true cost of raising a child.

This becomes important for child support laws, because the assumptions in the past about how much it costs to raise a child may not be true today.  As society evolves, child support calculations should also evolve to keep up with the realities of the times we live.

What are the primary problems with child support calculations?

They are heaviliy based on time with the children, rather than accurate costs
Child support calculations make an assumption that more time a parent has with the children, the more money that gets spent on them.  In reality, expenses on behalf of a child just do not work that way. For example, a parent with 70% of the time with the children does not necessarily cover 70% of the expenses.

Some costs, such as food might be assumed to be based on time with the child; however, even this has issues, as well. During the school week, children do not likely eat out. They likely get more affordable meals at home compared to the cost associated with eating out.  Conversely, when the noncustodial parent has the children, they likely plan something fun to do during their parenting time, as they should to promote bonding and make the most out of their limited time.  They may go to an amusement park, a museum, or an event of some sort that costs a significant amount of money. They may spend more on food expenses for the children during their visitation, than the custodial parent does during the school week.

They do not consider similar transportation expenses for both parents
According to the 2011 USDA study on child expenses, transportation expenses:

"consist of the monthly payments on vehicle loans, downpayments,
gasoline and motor oil, maintenance and repairs, insurance, and public transportation
(including airline fares)."

The issue for divorced or separated parents is that both parents need a vehicle suitable for transporting children, safely.  Other expenses like gas and maintenance vary based on miles driven by each parent.  Auto insurance is based entirely on the driver and the vehicle – not time with children.

They do not adequately consider housing costs for the noncustodial parent
In the higher estimates where housing is included, approximately 30% of the cost is housing.  For separated or divorced parents, this is a problem because two houses are involved, and both must be suitable for raising children. Both the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent should have housing that is adequate and provides children with their own bedroom.

Whether intentional or not, family courts tend to assume that housing is only important for the custodial parent. This creates a very difficult situation for many families because when the noncustodial parent has parenting time (visitation), they may lack the financial resources to provide the same level of adequate housing that the custodial parent enjoys. Noncustodial parents have physical custody during their parenting time, and that fact is, unfortunately, not reflected in child support calculations.  Courts simply have not yet adapted to the very real issue that both parents incur a similar foundation of certain fixed expenses when they have time with children.  Unrealistic child support obligations often relegate the noncustodial parent to modest housing, not well suitable for their parenting time.




How unpaid child support affects your taxes
This IRS page explains some of the tax issues associated with unpaid child support
Cornell University Law Explanation of Unpaid Child Support
Explains legal concepts associated with unpaid child support.
How to collect unpaid child support
The Child Support Recovery Act makes it a Federal misdemeanor to willfully not pay child support. Find our how to collect child support in arrears.

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