Deadbeat Parents Don’t Pay Because There’s No Enforcement
- Putting a Face on Unpaid Child Support: Kendra’s Story
- Putting a Face on Unpaid Child Support: Gabrielle’s Story
- Federal Government No Help with Unpaid Child Support
National alarm bells should be ringing over the shocking fact that only 41.2 percent of custodial parents receive their full allotment of child support. However, a perpetually stagnant economy and the ingenuity of deadbeats who avoid payment are stymieing efforts to improve collection rates.
Courts have a diverse toolkit at their disposal to force payments, with measures available up to and including incarceration in most states:
- Garnishment of wages, bank account or retirement income
- Interception of tax refund
- A lien on a house or property
- Forced sale of assets
- Suspension of drivers and professional licenses
- Revocation of passport
No Way To Garnish a Paycheck That Doesn’t Exist
A custodial parent can get access to just about any official income stream from a non-paying ex-spouse, even a federal retirement account, according to a recent court ruling in Virginia. However, the real trouble comes when a non-paying parent has no official income, or is able to hide it. “Human nature being what it is, there are always going to be people who dodge their obligations,” says Kenneth Altshuler, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.
“It’s one thing to win the support judgment. It’s another to enforce it,” Altshuler says. He finds two common obstacles to enforcing payment orders. “One, we can’t find the husband,” he says. “The second problem is he’s not employed, or he’s paid under the table.” With no income on record, there’s effectively no means to collect if the parent has managed to liquidate or hide other assets as well. There’s no way to garnish a paycheck that doesn’t exist, and a lien on a house is useless if the house is in foreclosure.
States are coming up with various creative measures to shame payment evaders and collect owed money:
- Arizona maintains a “most-wanted list” to draw attention to the biggest deadbeats.
- An Illinois bill would ban parents more than $10,000 in arrears from running for public office.
- Some states, like Texas, even criminalize non-support as a felony, providing an extra-large stick to use in going after the worst deadbeats.
- The biggest offenders see their faces plastered across the news, like Florida deadbeat John Stanton, who went on the lam to avoid a warrant for owing more than $6 million in support and alimony to his ex-wife.
But ultimately, if a parent devotes enough time and brainpower to avoiding payment, there’s simply no legal means to collect the money. In that case, imprisonment for contempt of court can be an option. But does it help?
State-wide Round Ups
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of individuals who brazenly rebuff all efforts to collect payments. When all other options are expended, New Jersey, a state where $2.6 billion of support payments is in arrears, goes after deadbeats with high-profile raids, rounding up dozens of non-payers at a time. A state-wide roundup in December served 987 warrants.
Jeffrey Weinstein, a family law attorney in Roseland, NJ, explains that parents get their day in court before jail time ever becomes an issue. “The payer has a couple chances,” he says.
Someone accused of evading payments first has the opportunity to contest the amount in arrears. If it is upheld, the evader gets another hearing to determine if he or she has willfully been disobeying the court order. If so, the person is then subject to arrest.
“Once those two chances are used, then they can easily be incarcerated,” Weinstein says. “I think it’s a fair system. It gives the payer a chance to contest, and the recipient a chance to have the order enforced.”
Texas, Ohio and other states conduct similar rounds-ups, and most states reserve the right to imprison chronic non-payers. However, there has also been backlash across the country against jailing deadbeats—while it may be a punishment fitting the crime, it doesn’t resolve the matter of support. A class action lawsuit was just filed in Georgia to prevent jailings after over 3,500 parents were put behind bars in the last two years for not paying, arguing that the jail time cripples the ability of the parent to ever catch up on arrears.
A jailed parent obviously isn’t making any money to catch up on payments, and is in fact costing cash-strapped states to hold them. But if jail doesn’t work, what recourse is there?
With the worst evaders seemingly beyond any effective means of coercing payment, some states are trying to buckle down and at least improve performance for factors within their control.
Maryland wants to be considered one of the leaders in support enforcement, and is unrolling new initiatives in data-sharing and best practices to improve their rankings. Currently, the state has $1.5 billion in support in arrears, a number that has risen slightly in recent years.
“We intend to improve where we’re not doing a good job,” says Joseph DiPrimio, the new executive director of the Maryland Child Support Enforcement Administration. “Why are we not attaching as many wages as we could? What’s causing us to not have a case in the pipeline and move it through in a timely fashion?”
DiPrimio has a long background in support enforcement, including leadership positions in the Philadelphia Family Court and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Child Support Enforcement Unit. Right off the bat in his new job, he wants to expand the number of wage attachments and process them more efficiently, so money gets to custodial parents faster.
DiPrimio plans to get the agencies in different counties to measure and share their data on a weekly basis to facilitate meeting monthly improvement goals, and to update record keeping operations to prevent mistakes like sending wage attachment orders to businesses that are no longer employing the parent in question.
“This is about getting money to people in the state of Maryland who deserve it,” he says.
Got a Lawyer?
Even when states are committed to enforcing support orders, a bad economy can cripple their efforts. “Agencies are overworked, underpaid, with not enough staff, and now we’re trying to get them to go collect child support for us,” Altshuler says. “Look at California— it has huge budget problems. These aren’t top priority cases.”
California has by far the largest amount of child support money in arrears, at $19.3 billion, although that figure is, in part, a product of the state’s high population. One option for people like Kendra (from part one of the series) who are left on their own by the state, is to hire a private attorney to go after the money they’re owed.
“It takes a long time to go through the system, to start collecting past due,” says Terry Szucsko, a family law attorney in San Francisco. “Another way is to hire an attorney to try to enforce the order.”
Private attorneys can place liens, garnish incomes, obtain license suspensions and even file contempt of court charges—the same options available to government support agencies, with less backlog—but the catch is, expediency comes at a cost. “Unfortunately, you’re racking up attorney’s fees then,” Szucsko says, which parents who rely on child support are scarcely likely to be able to afford.
“It’s a difficult task,” says Szucsko . “And a sad task, for parents trying to raise their children.”
A final option for parents owed money is to go to a private collection agency. “Our typical client doesn’t have a couple thousand for retainer fees to hire an attorney,” says Timothy Turner, director of enforcement for Support Collectors, a private firm that operates in most states across the country. Generally, private agencies take no money up front and take a percentage of what they collect.
Private agencies specialize in detective-style operations, finding evaders who have fled and then using the whole bag of lawyer tricks to get them to pay up, in cases governments might not have the resources to pursue.
Sometimes, government agencies won’t even open a case if the child is no longer a minor, Turner notes, but regardless of the child’s age, the arrears are still collectible. “If the kids are emancipated and looking at college, and you’ve got $40,000 in unpaid support owed, that would go a long way toward tuition,” he says.
“People always should try using their free government service first,” Turner says. “The problem is, sometimes that’s not an option.”
Ongoing economic doldrums and high unemployment rates have only increased non-payment rates. On the other side of the equation from deliberate evaders are non-custodial parents who are out of work and simply can’t afford their payments. In those cases, tactics to go after the unpaid money can actually be counterproductive, as punitive measures such as suspending professional licenses and imprisonment actually make it more difficult to rejoin the ranks of the employed.
Sometimes, Altshuler says, the best thing a parent owed money can do is wait. “Every week the obligation continues is a judgment,” he says. “Your ex will owe you that money sometime. It can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.”
Applying for welfare assistance and food stamps can prompt action, Altshuler suggests, because states don’t want and can’t afford to pick up the slack for parents who aren’t paying. Unfortunately, the tactic doesn’t always work, and many families simply can’t afford to wait and hope payments resume in better economic times–28 percent of custodial parents already have incomes below the poverty line. For mothers like Gabrielle, featured tomorrow in part three of the Lawyers.com child support series, there are few options left but to work multiple jobs and scrimp just to put meals on the table for her kids.