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Criminal Penalties for Failure to Pay Child Support

The Child Support Recovery Act, as amended by the Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act, makes it a federal crime to flee a state in order to avoid paying a child support arrearage. States use criminal contempt to punish parents who fail to pay child support upon a finding of an intentional failure to comply with a court order of support.

Federal Laws

Under the federal Child Support Recovery Act, it is a misdemeanor to accrue arrearage of more than $5,000 or to fail to pay an arrearage for more than one year. For first time offenders, the failure to pay constitutes a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment, with a maximum sentence of six months. Any subsequent violation is punishable by imprisonment with a maximum sentence of two years. It is a felony to accrue an arrearage of more than $10,000 or to fail to pay an arrearage of $5,000 or more for more than two years. Conviction of the felony also carries a sentence of up to two years. The Act requires that the sentencing court order restitution in the amount owed at the time of sentencing. Any probation or parole must include as a condition of probation or parole that the parent comply with any orders of child support.

State Criminal Contempt


Under state law, the failure to pay each payment of child support due may constitute contempt of court. A person who continually fails to pay child support can be charged and sanctioned for each payment missed. Civil contempt may be used to compel payment, where there is a showing that at least some payment can be made, but criminal contempt is used to punish the parent who fails or refuses to comply with the court order of support. In either proceeding, the object is to compel the payment of child support. In civil contempt, the parent is incarcerated until the sum is paid; in criminal contempt, the parent is given a fixed term in jail. In either situation, there may be a possibility that the parent is granted work release. Under work release, the parent is able to retain the costs of getting back and forth to work and minimal spending expenses, but the remainder of the net is taken and credited against the child support obligation.


Before a person can be found in contempt, the person alleging contempt must show that the parent has the ability to pay child support or intentionally put himself in the position of not having the funds to pay in order to avoid paying. A person who quits his well-paying job to “open ” his own business, and states that the new business is not profitable, will not be excused from paying child support. A person who has routinely earned high amounts of overtime, who stops working the extra hours to avoid paying also will not be excused. However, a person who has been laid off and has diligently sought new employment may be excused or at least have the amount reduced.


Copyright 2012 LexisNexis, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc.

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