Unfortunately, just because a court orders a parent to pay child support does not mean they actually will. Enforcement actions can be taken by the attorney general in order to collect court ordered child support when a parent fails to pay. Read below to learn more about how child support agencies enforce court orders to collect support payments in the state of Texas.
Tools for Collecting Child Support
Child support agencies have many tools for enforcing child support orders. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common methods CSS uses when attempting to collect past-due child support.
All child support orders include the enforcement tool of immediate wage withholding (also called “wage deduction,” “wage garnishment,” and “income (or earnings) assignment”). The state can order the obligor’s employer to deduct the child support amount from the obligor’s paycheck. Employers must deduct the payment from the obligor’s paycheck just like any other payroll deduction (such as income tax or social security). Depending on the order, the employer will send the payment to either the local child support office or the custodial parent.
Wage withholding is very effective when the obligor has a regular job with a steady, predictable paycheck. However, it often isn’t the best enforcement method when the obligor changes jobs often, is self-employed, or is unemployed. When that’s the case, other tools come into play.
Withholding Other Income
Wages aren’t the only income that state agencies can withhold to cover unpaid child support. CSS may also order that money be withheld from payments such as commission income, employment bonuses, and pension benefits.
State child support agencies can also participate in the Administrative Offset Program. This program allows interception of certain federal payments, such as pay to vendors who perform work for a government agency and federal retirement payments.
State child support agencies can report parents who haven’t paid child support to federal and state tax agencies.
Federal Income Tax Returns
Under the federal Treasury Offset Program, state child support enforcement agencies may report parents who fail to pay child support to the federal Treasury Department. The Treasury Department may then withhold refund payments for federal tax returns and other government payments, and apply the money toward overdue child support.
Sometimes, parents who owe child support receive a refund based on a joint tax return—perhaps because they’ve remarried and filed a joint tax return with the new spouse. In most states, the parent who’s owed support may collect only from the portion of the joint return that’s based on the obligor’s income. Note, however, that community property laws might affect whether a new spouse’s share of the tax return can be applied toward the obligor’s unpaid child support. (For more information about how tax offsets can be taken against tax returns where you live, and how you can make sure the IRS takes only the obligor’s share of the tax return, see the IRS’s instructions for Form 8379 (Injured Spouse Allocation).)
State Income Tax Returns
Every state that collects income tax is required to offset state income tax refunds when a parent owes child support. Similar to the situation with federal tax refunds, most states may withhold money only from the portion of the return that’s based on the obligor’s income if the obligor has remarried and is filing a joint return. (
License Suspensions and Revocations
One of the most effective ways of obtaining past-due child support payments is to have the state revoke or suspend an obligor’s driver’s license. CSS also has the power to order withholding, suspension, or even revocation of a delinquent parent’s professional license (such as a medical, legal, cosmetic, or real estate broker license) or recreational license (such as a hunting or fishing license).
For obligors who are sincerely trying to earn money to pay back child support, losing a license to drive or practice a profession might actually make it harder to do that. After all, these types of licenses are usually critical to the person’s ability to make money. CSS often won’t use this penalty if it’s not in the child’s best interest to do so.
For other obligors, though, losing a driver’s license or a professional or recreational license is a powerful incentive to pay the amount due.
If the obligor parent owns real estate or certain other types of property (like a car), child support payments can be enforced by placing a lien on the property. Every state has its own laws on who can file a child support lien. In some states, the parent who’s owed money may file the lien; in others, only a child support agency may file one. The holder of a lien has a claim on the property, and the obligor usually can’t sell the property without paying off the lien. In rare cases, the holder of a lien has the right to force a sale of the property to pay off the lien.
One of the downsides of a lien is that it doesn’t lead to an immediate payment. The parent who’s owed support usually has to wait until the obligor sells the property or is able to pay off the lien without a sale.
Bank Account Freezing and Attachments
CSS has the power to freeze an obligor’s accounts held by certain financial institutions (such as banks, credit unions, and insurance companies). When a child support agency freezes an obligor’s bank or other financial account, the obligor can’t use the account until the debt is paid off. In some states, after the account has been frozen for a period of time (such as 30 days), and the obligor still hasn’t paid the debt, the financial institution may seize (withdraw) the amount owed from the obligor’s account and send it directly to the child support agency.
Another option available to CSS is to “attach” or seize other property the obligor owns to cover the unpaid child support. In that situation, the obligor will have to either sell the item and apply the proceeds to unpaid child support, or transfer ownership of the item to the custodial parent.
When a parent owes at least $2,500 in child support, CSS can submit the parent’s information to the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE). OCSE can then submit the parent’s information to the Department of State, which can reject the parent’s passport application. Sometimes, the child support agency can attempt to get a federal warrant that gives the Department of State the power to revoke an obligor’s passport and arrest the parent when they try to re-enter the United States.
Contempt of Court
When none of these enforcement methods work, the custodial parent (on their own or with the help of an attorney) may take the obligor to court. After hearing the evidence, a judge may then find the obligor “in contempt of court”—in other words, guilty of ignoring the court order requiring payment of child support. A contempt can result in fines or even jail time.
If you’re the custodial parent, you should consult with CSS before taking this drastic step. Many states won’t allow you to pursue a contempt case until you’ve worked with CSS and attempted all other reasonable collection methods.
Other Consequences of Failing to Pay Child Support
On top of all of these enforcement tools, CSS is required by federal law to report late child support to the major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) every month. That means that anyone who’s delinquent in paying child support will take a major hit to their credit score. Having a low credit score can make it difficult to obtain a loan (for a car or house, for example) or obtain credit.
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