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Can Someone Go to Jail for Not Paying Child Support?


Child support is a legally binding agreement. If someone you know is behind on his or her child support payments, there can be serious repercussions under federal law. The United States Code, Section 228 Title 18, establishes that willful failure to pay child support is against the law in certain circumstances. This makes a violator subject to federal prosecution, in the event that he or she intentionally fails to pay court-ordered child support for a child who lives in another state or if the payment is more than a year past due or is more than $5,000 in arrears.

Failure to pay child support is a criminal misdemeanor charge, and violators may be subject to jail time.

Legal Concepts Underlying Failure to Pay Child Support

The courts may choose to jail someone who fails to pay child support under contempt of court charges. This is a legal term that means you violated a court order. Contempt of court can carry fines of up to $500 for each violation, as well as any associated court costs and attorney’s fees.

If you’re facing contempt of court charges, you have the right to an attorney who will represent your interests throughout the proceeding. The courts may appoint an attorney for you if your charge meets the following requirements:

  • Your income is low, or you have no income.
  • Your hearing could result in jail time.

In some cases, the courts may allow you to choose imprisonment or pay a fine. While you’re serving time in jail, your child support order will continue. You then must petition the court to request a reduction in your child support payments, based on your capacity to earn money while in prison. A prison term for a child support violation can be as long as six months, so it’s essential to petition the courts for this reduction to avoid even more back child support payments.

What If I Can’t Afford Child Support Payments?

Many noncustodial parents assume that if they are unable to make payments, they can receive a reprieve or a reduction in the balance due when they provide an explanation to the court. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. If you wait to the point that you’re facing incarceration for nonpayment, the courts will not be able to reduce any back payments. If you’re facing a change in financial circumstances, alert the courts as soon as possible. Provide proof of your reduced income and ask for a commensurate reduction in payments. In this case, the courts may be able to reduce the amount of your payments temporarily or permanently.

If the courts grant a suspension or reduction of your child support payments while you’re in prison, your release will be a “material and substantial” change in your financial circumstances. When the courts acknowledge a material and substantial change in your finances, they must change the terms of your court order. As a result, your child support payments will likely increase again to reflect your increase in earning capacity upon your release from prison.

Child Support Best Practices

There is no way to “get out” of child support payments, and nonpayment can have serious repercussions. Aside from wage garnishment, you could face up to six months’ jail time for violating a court order. If you’re struggling to make child support payments, contact the court and request a reduction in payments as soon as possible. Waiting too long could lead to serious legal consequences – and render the court unable to forgive you or reduce your back payments. If you have any further questions, consult your Colorado family law attorney.

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