Can You go to Prison for Not Paying Child Support?

By Natalie

Updated: June 24, 2021

The purpose of child support is to provide for your child’s needs – housing, food, clothing, medical, extracurriculars, etc. – even though you are the non-custodial parent. It’s not a payment that you make in exchange for child care. 

Most custodial parents rely on the child support payments from the non-custodial parents, but that doesn’t mean they get the help they need.

According to the US Census Bureau’s Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support report released in 2020, only 45.9% of custodial parents who were owed child support in 2017 received full payments.

With that many people skipping out on their child support payments, it makes you wonder if there are any consequences. Keep reading to find out if you can go to prison for not paying child support.

In this blog post, I will cover the following topics:

  • Failure to pay child support is contempt of court
  • There are several possible punishments
  • You can avoid jail when you fail to pay child support – here’s how

Failure to pay child support is contempt of court

Child support that is part of a court-ordered parenting/custody agreement is legally binding. Which means, if you fail to pay you can get into legal trouble. Failing to obey a court order is called contempt of court. So, if you owe unpaid child support, you will probably find yourself in front of a judge. 

The amount of child support owed for the case to end up in court varies. But the longer you let your child support payments remain past-due, the more likely you will be charged with contempt.

A court hearing must come at the request of the custodial parent. The non-custodial parent must be served with an order to attend the hearing. Then, the non-custodial parent must appear in court and explain why they aren’t paying the child support that they owe.

If the non-custodial parent doesn’t show up, the court can issue a warrant for their arrest. This is very common, and county jails are often populated with parents who don’t pay their child support and who don’t show up in court.

Non-custodial parents who owe child support can also end up in jail even if they show up for the court hearing. The judge can put a parent behind bars simply for not paying the money they owe.

There are several possible punishments

When someone fails to pay child support, there are several possible punishments that can be imposed. They include: driver’s license suspension, wage garnishment, fines and penalties, denial of passport, dismissal from military service, and jail time.

All 50 states have laws that allow for the suspension of driver’s licenses or occupation, professional, or business licenses for failing to pay child support. 

If the court orders a wage garnishment, the state will contact the employer directly and have the child support payments automatically taken out of paychecks. Garnishment can also include the seizure of state and federal tax refunds.

Some states charge additional fines and penalties for unpaid child support. Delinquent parents might also be unable to obtain passports, get dismissed from military service, or get sent to jail.

Imprisonment is usually the last result, but a misdemeanor can put someone who is behind on their child support payments in jail for up to six months. However, if the debt is severe enough, it could turn into a felony and that means ending up in prison.

As a rule, all of this is handled in a state family court. However, failure to pay child support can be a federal offense if the non-custodial parent who owes child support has moved out of state. 

The federal government must prove several things in order to secure a conviction under Section 228 of Title 18 of the United States Code:

  1. The parent had the ability to pay.
  2. The parent willfully failed to pay.
  3. Child support has not been paid for at least a year; or
  4. The parent owes more than $5,000 in support.

At the federal level, failure to pay child support is considered a criminal misdemeanor and can result in up to six months in prison as of the date of this article. The charge can increase to a criminal felony and up to two years in prison on a second offense, when support hasn’t been paid in more than two years, or the amount owed reaches more than $10,000.

Child support enforcement must begin at the state or local level before it can proceed to a federal court.

We should note that judges hardly ever put a parent in jail for contempt of court. Typically, this only happens when an income-withholding order or a wage garnishment will not work. Ultimately, the courts acknowledge that a jailed parent cannot earn money to make child support payments. 

You can avoid jail when you fail to pay child support – here’s how

If you get behind on your child support payments, that doesn’t mean you should stop making payments altogether. That debt will continue to add up, and the judge can’t modify what you owe in arrears. 

If you can’t pay due to financial hardship, communicate with the co-parent and with the state. You can seek formal child support modification through the courts. Just remember that making partial payments is better than completely defaulting.

To avoid jail for failing to pay child support, you must go to your contempt of court hearing. You must be prepared to show the court that you have not deliberately disobeyed their order.  The first thing to do is show the judge why you didn’t pay.

If you’ve lost your job, or been out of work for any reason, get a sworn statement from your most recent employer. If you are looking for a job, document where you apply and who you talk to.

You must also be prepared to explain why you didn’t request a modification hearing when it became clear that you couldn’t pay the amount ordered.  Just remember, any evidence you present to the court must be truthful. You should never lie.

We are not attorneys here at Prison Insight, so please don’t take this as legal advice. You should always consult a lawyer if you find yourself owing back child support.

Do you think people should go to jail or prison for failing to pay child support? Let us know in the comments below.


Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2017

Failure to Pay Child Support

Can I Go To Jail For Not Paying?

Jail Time for Unpaid Child Support
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