Child Support 101.2: Enforcing Child Support Orders


Child Support 101 is a compilation of online documents that explain the child support process and services. It is broken in to three series: state functions, enforcement and family centered services. The first series, Child Support 101: State Functions, offers information about state child support administration and the basics of child support. The second series, Child Support 101.2: Enforcement, features a collection of documents explaining the many aspects of and options for enforcement of child support. Child Support 101.3: Family Centered Services, the third of the series, is not yet available but will address various issues including child support prevention, fatherhood programs and economic stability. You may view the full contents of this project by visiting the comprehensive table of contents.

Noncustodial parents who do not pay court-ordered child support are subject to enforcement measures to collect regular and past-due payments. States have a variety of tools to encourage compliance with orders and ensure payments are made, including income withholding, tax refund offsets, property liens, asset seizure, credit bureau reporting, insurance matching, license suspension or revocation, passport denial, and civil or criminal contempt charges. Certain actions must be taken; however, states have some flexibility to target its enforcement strategies on what will be most successful based on the family’s circumstances.  

States must establish procedures indicating when they will pursue such enforcement actions. States are required to initiate income withholding and submit all eligible cases for state and federal income tax refund offsets. States can waive certain enforcement strategies, such as state income tax refund offset, liens, posting a bond, or reporting to credit bureaus if the state determines that it is not appropriate given the noncustodial parent’s payment record, availability of other remedies, and other relevant considerations.

States have the option to implement their own procedures to encourage compliance with child support orders. Some states intercept lottery and other gambling winnings, others have established a public list of parents who are delinquent on payments, and still others use car boots or electronic monitoring devices to enforce payment. More recently, states are using other tools to increase the reliability of payments to support children. Recent research has shown that offering debt reduction programs; distributing all payments to children; encouraging engagement with noncustodial parents through parenting time agreements; and offering employment services to families are effecting ways to help parents meet their financial support obligations. States are continuously developing policies and practices to meet the needs of families, especially in light of changing family demographics and economic circumstances.

Income Withholding

Most child support orders require employers and payers of funds to automatically withhold basic support, medical support and spousal support obligations from an obligor’s income. Income has been defined as any periodic form of payment due to an individual, regardless of source, including wages, salaries, commissions, bonuses, worker’s compensation, disability payments pursuant to a pension or retirement program, and interest.  Payers of funds include employers, trustees, self-employed individuals, financial institutions, unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation insurers, unions, individuals or companies paying independent contractors and others who make periodic payments. If a parent has been ordered to pay child support and is employed (even in another state) that parent’s employer, when notified, must withhold child support from the parent’s paycheck. Employers must honor a child support income withholding order before any other garnishment, except an IRS tax levy entered before the child support order.

States must use their automated system to assist in the collection of child support. Immediate income withholding requires that the income of the obligated parent be subject to income withholding "regardless of whether support payments by such parent are in arrears." (See P.L. 100-485, section 101.) Congress included two exceptions to immediate income withholding: when one of the parties demonstrates, or the court or administrative process finds, that there is good cause not to require immediate income withholding, or when a written agreement between the parties provides for an alternative arrangement.

Based on the Federal Consumer Credit Protection Act (CCPA), all income withholdings have a set upper limit on what may be withheld. The federal withholding limits for child support and alimony are based on the disposable earnings of the employee. The CCPA limit is 50 percent of the disposable earnings if the employee supports a second family and 60 percent if the employee does not support a second family. This limit increases to 55 percent and 65 percent respectively if the employee owes arrearages that are 12 weeks or more past due.

States may choose a lower limit. About two-thirds of the states use the federal limits, and about one-third cap the withholding at 50 percent regardless of second families or arrearage amount.

State laws and procedures vary in whether the state may collect from lump-sum payments or whether employers/payers may charge fees to process withholding payments.

Tax Refund Offsets

Federal Income Tax Refund Interception

The Federal Income Tax Refund Offset Program collects past-due child support payments from the tax refunds of parents who have been ordered to pay child support. The program is a cooperative effort between the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, the Internal Revenue Service, the Financial Management Service of the Department of the Treasury, and state child support agencies.

The federal tax refund offset is mandatory for cases meeting the eligibility criteria. Cases receiving full services through the state IV-D child support enforcement agency that have delinquent child support debt are eligible for Federal Tax Refund Offset. For cases receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the noncustodial parent must owe at least $150; in non-TANF cases, the amount owed must be at least $500. In some states, the custodial party may be charged a fee (not greater than $25) for this service.

Federal distribution rules require that money received through federal tax intercept be applied first to arrears owed to the state. If any child support arrearages are owed to the state for assistance payments made to the family, that money has to be repaid first before money is distributed to the family. If the child support order includes an award for spousal support, the tax refund may also cover the past-due spousal support.

State Tax Refund Offset

States may intercept a noncustodial parent’s state income tax refund. The states are responsible for establishing eligibility criteria and procedures for this program. 

Property Liens and Levies

The state child support agency may place a lien for unpaid child support on real and personal property, including houses and vehicles. States are required to have laws outlining the procedures for the imposition of liens. When property has a child support lien, potential buyers, title companies and lenders can find that a lien exists on the property. The lien remains on the property until the amount owed is paid. The lien applies to property that is owned at the time the lien is recorded and to all property that may be acquired later. Liens can last for a number of years, depending on the state statute, and generally can be revived for an indefinite number of additional periods, as long as the underlying judgment survives. The lien may grow automatically, as the arrearage increases, and may even take priority over subsequent liens created by other creditors if the statute so provides. Some states have given priority to child support liens over most other liens.

Seizure of Assets and Benefits

Child support agencies have the authority to seize various assets as another way to enforce child support orders. These include public and private retirement funds, checking, savings and other accounts held by financial institutions, as well as some benefits. This type of attachment and seizure of assets falls within three broad enforcement tools: financial institution data matching; federal administrative offset and interception of various benefit payments.  

Financial Institution Data Match (FIDM)

State child support programs must enter into agreements with financial institutions in their state to conduct data matches to identify accounts of delinquent child support obligors. Financial institutions participating in FIDM include banks, savings and loans; federal and state credit unions; benefit associations, insurance companies, safe deposit companies, and money market mutual funds. The types of accounts subject to the program are demand deposit accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts, time deposit accounts and money market mutual fund accounts. Matches can be conducted each quarter of the calendar year.

Multi-State Financial Institution Data Match (MSFIDM)

State agencies may also participate in matching at the federal level with thousands of multi-state financial institutions in order to identify accounts of delinquent child support obligors. MSFIDM allows financial institutions doing business in two or more states to report directly to OCSE rather than to each individual state in which it does business. OCSE provides information on delinquent obligors based on data submitted by the state. Financial institutions match this information against their accounts. The financial institution returns any matches to OCSE. OCSE shares the information with the state submitting the obligor's name and Social Security Number. State agencies may issue liens or levies on the accounts (depending on the state laws governing this type of enforcement action).

Federal Administrative Offset

States can work with the federal government through a process called administrative offset, which allows states to conduct a seizure of federal payments to satisfy a child support debt. The Debt Collection Improvement Act (DCIA) allows certain federal payments (e.g., payments to government contractors, federal retirement payments, and certain reimbursements to federal employees) to be offset. State participation in the administrative offset program is optional. A case may be submitted for administrative offset when the debt is at least $25 and is 30 days past due, although states have flexibility to determine a higher threshold. Both recurring and nonrecurring payments are eligible for administrative offset. Certain payments cannot be intercepted through this program, including veteran’s disability benefits, federal student loans, some Social Security payments, and other need-based programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Benefits Payments

States may seek to attach any assets or benefits owned by the noncustodial parent and held by another person, institution, or entity (e.g., bank or retirement account), including unemployment benefits and worker’s compensation payments. States must match data with their unemployment compensation agency in order to identify and withhold child support payments from the noncustodial parent’s unemployment insurance benefits. States may also have the authority to attach Workers' Compensation benefits from noncustodial parents who owe child support. Weekly benefits or lump sum payouts may be taken to pay child support.

Credit Bureau Reporting

States are required to periodically report the names of noncustodial parents and child support information to consumer reporting agencies. Child support obligations are considered to be judgments, renewable each month, and therefore, are appropriate to be reported to consumer reporting agencies. Each monthly payment satisfies the current month's obligation, but each new month begins a new obligation until child support is no longer owed, such as when the child reaches the age of majority. Child support agencies are free to provide information to credit bureaus on any noncustodial parent with a legitimate child support obligation, whether or not in arrears.

Federal law requires child support agencies to notify noncustodial parents in advance concerning the proposed release of information to consumer reporting and to inform noncustodial parents of the methods available for contesting the accuracy of that information. Parents must be notified either of the reporting as part of the court order or through a manual notice. In interstate child support enforcement cases in which an initiating state has requested a responding state to enforce a support order, the responding state reports child support obligations to consumer reporting agencies.

Consumer credit reporting can serve as an incentive to make prompt and consistent payments in order to avoid a negative report. This may be effective for self-employed parents who are dependent on credit to operate a business. Credit reporting is also a way to substantiate income and aid in securing additional collections.

Insurance Match

The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) also works with the insurance industry to match insurance claimants (and beneficiaries) to child support obligors in order to help states in the collection of child support. OCSE conducts the Insurance Match Program with insurers, agents or state agencies receiving claim information and provides matches to the state child support agency responsible to collect the child support from the delinquent obligors.

Currently, the federal program is matching individuals delinquent in their child support obligations with 20 state workers' compensation agencies, over 577 insurance companies through the Insurance Services Office and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Posting Security, Bond or Guarantee

States may require the obligor to post security, bond, or some other guarantee to secure payment of the overdue support. The state must provide advance notice to the noncustodial parent regarding the delinquency of the support payment and the requirement of posting security, bond or guarantee, and inform the noncustodial parent of his or her rights and the methods available for contesting the impending action, in full compliance with the state's procedural due process requirements. The state must develop guidelines, which are generally available to the public to determine whether the case is appropriate for application of this procedure.

Passport Denial

The Passport Denial Program is another tool provided to states in collaboration with the federal government. Under the program, noncustodial parents certified by a state as having arrearages exceeding $2,500 are submitted by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement to the Department of State, which can deny or place restrictions on the person’s U.S. passport. Noncustodial parents are not automatically removed from the Passport Denial Program even if their arrearages fall below the $2,500 threshold. States can choose not to submit a person’s name to the passport denial program under certain circumstances.

License Suspension

Federal law gives states authority to withhold, suspend, or restrict the use of driver’s licenses, professional and occupational licenses, and recreational and sporting licenses of individuals owing overdue support. Noncustodial parents who fail, after receiving appropriate notice, to comply with subpoenas or warrants relating to paternity or child support proceedings may also be subject to license suspension or restrictions (for use in appropriate cases).

Civil and Criminal Contempt

States also use civil contempt actions, incarceration, criminal contempt and bench warrants to enforce child support payment compliance. Failure to pay child support is a violation of a court order to pay, and is thus handled as a civil contempt of court case.  A finding of civil contempt in these cases is predicated on nonpayment when the defendant is financially capable of paying, and a defendant can always avoid jail time by either paying the amount owed, or by showing that he is incapable of paying. 

Because parents have a legal obligation to provide support for their children and failure to provide such support is considered a crime against the state, it is generally known as criminal nonsupport. Criminal nonsupport statutes exist, in some form, in all 50 states. The severity of the punishment ranges from misdemeanors with small fines and short jail sentences to felonies with high fines and lengthy prison terms. While the elements of the statutes vary from state to state, generally a state must prove that (1) the defendant acted knowingly or intentionally; and (2) the defendant failed to provide support. These methods are often viewed as last resort options.

For more information, visit Criminal Nonsupport and Child Support.

U.S. Attorney Referral for Criminal Prosecution

The Child Support Recovery Act of 1992 (CSRA), Pub. L. No. 102-521, makes the willful failure to pay a past due support obligation with respect to a child residing in another state a federal offense. A first violation of the CSRA is punishable by six months imprisonment and/or a fine. Subsequent violations are punishable by two years imprisonment and/or a fine.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has primary investigatory jurisdiction. Additionally, Special Agents of the Office of the Inspector General of the United States Department of Health and Human Services have been given authority to investigate violations of the CSRA.

The United States must prove the defendant has the ability to pay, willfully failed to pay, and has a known past due (child) support obligation which has remained unpaid for longer than one year or is an amount greater than $5,000 for a child who resides in another state.

State Optional Mechanisms

States have the flexibility to use additional tools to enforce child support orders that are not required by federal law or regulations. Examples include the intercept of lottery winnings, public listings of delinquent obligors, the use of car boots, and electronic monitoring. Some states have included more services to noncustodial parents and passed laws requiring job search or other employment training as a way to help parents increase earnings in order to pay child support.

Lottery Offset

States may intercept funds from lottery winnings to pay child support. Some states are also intercepting winnings from casinos and other gaming establishments.

Publication of Delinquent Obligors

Some states have established programs for the publication of listings of child support obligors who are delinquent in their support payments in newspapers or online. Publications may display photographs of and information about the obligors. The publications often list a toll-free telephone number to report information regarding the whereabouts of any of the obligors displayed in the publications.

Car Boots

Some states use a wheel boot on vehicles of individuals who do not pay child support. The boot immobilizes the vehicle until its owner contacts the state agency and pays or works out a payment plan. The state must verify the vehicle is solely owned by the obligor, co-owned with the obligor’s current spouse, or owned by a business where the obligor is the sole proprietor and must notify the obligor of the intent to boot the vehicle. If the obligor does not contact the enforcement office after the vehicle has been immobilized, the vehicle may be deemed abandoned and sold.

Electronic Monitoring (Ankle Bracelets)

Some states have also chosen to use electronic transmitter bracelets on child support obligors to encourage compliance with child support orders. Research documents modest improvements in child support payment compliance.

Employment Services and Fatherhood Programs

Some states may use court-ordered employment programs for unemployed noncustodial parents. Such programs can increase child support collections and improve employment outcomes. The premise of these programs is to use a work-oriented program instead of ordering jail time.

Child support programs may also collaborate with fatherhood programs. Often voluntary, these programs are similar to court-ordered programs; however, these include more intensive employment services and include a fatherhood component. These programs focus on assisting fathers to overcome economic and emotional barriers to support their children.


Contact Us

For more information or to request technical assistance on state or federal child support policies and programs, please send a message to Children & Families staff. As a membership organization serving state legislators and legislative staff, we do not respond to inquiries or provide legal advice related to individual child support or family law cases.

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