As parents struggle with lay-offs or job losses, fewer work hours and reduced home values, many are finding it difficult to keep up with their child support obligations. But one missed payment could spell financial disaster for a parent who depends on support to provide for the children.
Even in tough economic times, parents are obligated to pay child support. For those who have lost their jobs or have been forced to take lower-paying employment, it may be necessary to seek a modification of your child support order to avoid the severe penalties imposed by the state for failure to pay.
Modifying Child Support Orders
Once support obligations are set by the court, one parent cannot unilaterally decide to decrease the amount he or she pays each month or stop paying altogether - even if the parent has recently become unemployed.
In order to change the amount of child support payments, the court must grant a modification of the child support order. Either parent can request a modification of the order. The parent submits a Motion to Modify Child Support directly to the court with jurisdiction over the case. The parent filing the motion will be required to include documentation supporting his or her request in addition to any other documents required by the court. The other parent must be served with a copy of the motion and all accompanying documents. The court administrator will then set a hearing date for the judge to rule on the motion.
The judge will only modify the requirements of a child support order if there has been a substantial change in circumstances. The substantial change can be in the child's circumstances or either parent's circumstances. Some examples of changed circumstances include:
- Increase or decrease in either parent's income
- Change in cost of living of either parent
- A child's extraordinary medical expenses
- Change in the availability of health care coverage for the child
- Substantial increase or decrease in the cost of health care premiums
- Substantial increase or decrease in child care costs
- Receipt of public assistance by either parent or child
- Emancipation of the child
If the amount of support is changed, it will only be applied retroactively back to the date that the parents received notice of the petition to modify the support order. This means that up until the date the notice was served, the payor parent still is responsible for paying the original amount of support. Also, parents cannot stop making support payments while the modification is pending.
Consequences of Not Paying Child Support
Parents who fall behind on their support obligations and who cannot afford to repay them all at once may set up a written payment plan with the court. If the parent follows the plan, he or she will not be subject to any penalties or other actions for the back-owed amounts. However, once the parent falls into noncompliance, penalties can be levied against the parent.
In Minnesota, some of the actions that may be taken against payor parents who fail to meet their support obligations include:
- Contempt of court: parents who are at least three months behind on their support payments and are not following a payment agreement can be held in contempt of court and may have to serve jail time until they resume making regular support payments.
- Criminal non-support charges: parents who have previously been held in contempt of court for failing to pay support and continue not to pay may face criminal charges, depending on the number of months they are behind on payments and the amount owed. If convicted, the parents may be incarcerated and have to pay fines in addition to the unpaid support.
- Property liens: the state may place a lien on any property or other assets owned by the payor parent in the county where the support order was entered. This includes the payor parent's primary residence.
- Federal criminal charges: parents who have moved out of state in an attempt to avoid paying child support may be charged under the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act (UIFSA). Parents who owe at least $5,000 in unpaid support or who have not made a child support payment in the last year and have the financial ability to make the payments, but intentionally choose not to, may be prosecuted under this federal law.
Delinquent child support payors may also face:
- Denial of passport
- Student grant denial
- Forfeiture of state and federal income tax refunds
- Suspension of commercial, occupational, recreational or driver's license
- Lien on vehicles
- Garnishment of unemployment and/or worker's compensation benefits
Regardless of the legal actions that may be taken against you by the other parent or the state, the person who suffers the most when support obligations aren't met is the child. No matter what your differences are with your former spouse or partner, it is important to remember that the support payments are meant to help meet the basic needs of your children.
There really is no way to avoid your child support obligation or to make back-owed support go away. If you find yourself suffering in the current economic environment, whether because you have lost your job or had your hours reduced or your benefits cut, it is in your best interest to petition the court for a modification to see if you can have your payments reduced.