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Can a Parent Go to Jail for Not Paying Child Support?

August 08, 2023
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Can a Parent Go to Jail for Not Paying Child Support

In short, yes. Withholding child support payments can result in a jail sentence. Serving time in jail may sound like an overly harsh punishment to some, but sometimes that kind of negative motivation is necessary to convince others to act in good faith.

However, rarely does any one action (or inaction) boil down to one nice and neat consequence, and the same goes for unpaid child support. Read on to learn more about the repercussions of overdue support payments.

Penalties for Lawbreakers

Child support payments are court-ordered, also known as mandated. That means a parent who fails to follow the mandate for any reason is violating the law. As a result, they are technically in contempt of court as soon as that first payment is late. Whether the parent doesn’t have the money to pay or has the money but has decided not to pay doesn’t matter.

Consequences of unpaid child support include:

  • Interest and fines
  • Legal hearing
  • Garnished wages or tax refunds
  • Revoked licenses (driver and professional)
  • Jail (amount of time depends on the severity of the crime)

Why Every Offending Co-parent Isn’t in Jail

Rarely would a judge or magistrate automatically have a parent arrested after their first missed child support payment (or even their second or third). One reason is that a locked-up parent can’t share custody with their co-parent, which the court system believes is best for children. Plus, that parent loses out on potential work and wages, resulting in a snowball effect of missed child support payments.

Typical Series of Events

What usually happens instead is the court system and law enforcement work together to garnish (withhold) a parent’s wages and federal tax refunds to fund child support payments. And even before that, the court system would hold a hearing to interview both co-parents and determine causes and solutions.

If a Co-parent Can’t Pay

The best defense is a good, proactive offense. If one co-parent foresees a problem paying child support on time, they should discuss the matter with their ex first.

Apps for divorced parents and expense tracking apps can help co-parents record, share, and discuss finances neutrally. The unalterable spending documents on child-related goods and services can help them and their legal and financial advisors plan for repayments and negotiate future settlements.

Continued unpaid child support can land both parents in a court hearing before a judge so that each can explain their side of the story. The offending parent must produce evidence to show why they couldn’t pay or communicate with their co-parent about it first and why they didn’t hire a legal advisor to help them work out a better agreement with their co-parent. They must provide any proof of earnings, bills, and communications with the co-parent they have.

***Helpful Hint: Most co-parenting apps are court-approved and can aid divorced or separated couples with much of this documentation.***

If the offending co-parent was laid off, they will also need a previous employer’s statement on why they were laid off. And they’ll be expected to provide proof that they are looking and applying for jobs and going on job interviews. If they sought legal counsel but were turned down or couldn’t afford one, they’ll need to produce the name of the lawyers and the legal fees quoted or the reasons they were turned away.

The Cost of Unpaid Child Support

For any co-parent thinking they can’t afford child support, the costs of not paying it are even higher.

For starters, interest and fines start adding to the amount the parent owes. Then, that parent’s employer would learn of the criminal offense when they get notified to withhold the employee’s earnings. As a result, that parent’s current and future job prospects and earning potential will be negatively impacted.

Lost driver’s and professional licenses further affect their ability to make money and pay bills and child support. More and more missed payments from declining earnings could eventually land them in jail. Jail time drastically affects their reputation, future jobs, and profits.

Details on Jail Time and Monetary Penalties

Fines and jail sentences vary based on the severity of the offense. More minor offenses are classified as misdemeanors. On average, fines can range from $2,000 to $5,000, with up to six months of jail time served in a county jail or workhouse.

More significant offenses are classified as felonies. In these instances, the offending party can serve up to 18 months in a state facility.

The Importance of Communication and Documentation

Proper communication between co-parents is so vital. Being proactive and upfront about finances is the best way to work through issues to arrive at agreeable terms.

Communicating through a co-parenting app is the best way to exchange information automatically and reliably. Apps for the divorced family can assist with everything from communicating peacefully to paying child support to scheduling the children’s activities. Tracking child support payments is especially helpful for two co-parents and any legal advisors they partner with.

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