In 2020, over three million Americans who owed back child support were at risk of having their stimulus payments intercepted. Despite pandemic conditions, being delinquent on your child support or spousal support (alimony) payments can put any tax refunds or other government payments at risk. If a trial court finds you’re deliberately flouting its orders, it can even send you to jail. What options do Washington residents have after falling behind on their court-ordered child or spousal support payments? How should you proceed when catching up seems like an impossible task?
Identify the Reason for Non-Payment
In many cases, those who pay child or spousal support can fall behind on payments due to factors outside their control: job loss or reduced hours, illness, or sudden unexpected expenses. In these situations, it’s often possible to petition the trial court for a temporary or permanent reduction in the amount of support you owe. For example, if you lost a job, were unemployed for a while, and then had to take a lower-paying job, you may be able to amend your support obligation so that it’s based only on your new lower salary.
But in most cases, this type of court-imposed relief is prospective only—in other words, it may reduce your future support obligations, but is unlikely to erase the back support you owe. There are some exceptions, such as situations where your economic hardships make it unlikely you’ll ever be able to repay your full debt; but because this is relatively rare, it’s important to seek a modification of your support obligation as soon as you can so that your support delinquency will stop growing.
Another point to note is that “targeted” child support—or support that is earmarked for specific activities, like after-school care or extracurriculars—may be able to be waived if you can show that these activities are no longer available as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. If you’ve already made payments toward such activities, you may be entitled to reimbursement.
Talk to the Recipient
If your loss of income or other financial hardship seems like a temporary blip, the other parent or your ex-spouse may agree to temporarily reduce your support obligations. However, this is an option only when you pay the recipient directly—if your payments are made to or processed by the trial court clerk or the Division of Child Support (DCS), a verbal or written agreement with the recipient won’t do anything to reduce your ongoing obligations. This path also poses the risk that the recipient will later seek collection of unpaid support regardless of any agreement to the contrary; until and unless this agreement is put into a court order, it has no legal effect.
There are some middle-ground options between an informal agreement and a court-ordered modification of child support. In some cases, mediation, arbitration, or a settlement conference with a private judge may provide some relief.
- Mediation is a non-binding process in which a neutral mediator helps facilitate discussion to see whether there’s any common ground. If the parties can’t agree on an outcome at mediation, the case will return to court.
- Arbitration is a binding process in which an arbitrator conducts a mini-trial and achieves a verdict. Although arbitration can be a less expensive option than a full court hearing, it’s also risky—by arbitrating a case instead of litigating it, you often give up your right to appeal.
- A private judge can also preside over a settlement conference. This process is a hybrid of mediation, arbitration, and litigation—in most cases, the private judge acts as an arm of the court, which means that any result reached is binding. However, unlike in arbitration, you reserve the right to appeal the outcome to the trial court, the Washington Court of Appeals, or the Washington Supreme Court.
Seek a Support Modification in Court
If other efforts to reduce your support obligation have been unsuccessful, or if you’d rather have the transparency that comes from litigating your support obligation in open court, you may want to file for a modification of your support. In other cases, the recipient may file an enforcement action as a way to compel payment. In either case, you’ll need to present evidence of your current income and assets, as well as evidence of any expenses or other hardships that are impacting your ability to make timely support payments.
What to Expect During the Enforcement Process
When you bring your case to court (or are brought to court), there are a few fairly common outcomes.
First, you may have your support obligation reduced, or be issued a payment plan to help catch up on any delinquent payments. This is generally the best possible outcome—though it’s possible your past-due payments could be waived, this is very rare.
Another potential outcome is that any request to modify the support amount will be denied. Depending on how far behind you are in your payments and what efforts you’ve made to become current, you could be found in contempt of the child support order. In some cases, you could be ordered to jail—and released only after you’ve posted a bond that goes toward your support arrearage. In other cases, you may have your wages garnished (including federal tax refunds, workers’ compensation, any pension income, and unemployment compensation) until the arrearage is paid in full.
Other potential penalties involve the suspension of your driver’s license and any professional licenses; refusal to issue or renew a U.S. passport (to prevent the parent from leaving the country before the arrearage is paid); or negative reports to the U.S. credit reporting agencies.
Because of the broad array of tools Washington courts have at their disposal, it’s important to be proactive when it comes to relieving your support obligation. Judges aren’t necessarily interested in “punishing” the delinquent parent or ex-spouse, but in ensuring that the recipient of these funds has what they need to support themselves; therefore, showing that you’ve made a good-faith effort to repay your arrearage or stay current on payments can go a long way toward improving any outcome.