Criminal Penalties for Failure to Pay Child Support

Most states consider it the equal responsibility of both parents to support their children. They are expected to provide for proper housing, food, medical assistance and other needs. If a parent fails to pay court-ordered child support, he or she may be criminally prosecuted for this offense and may face other serious penalties.

Purpose of Child Support

When a child’s parents are not together, child support helps ensure that the child has the same financial benefits of an intact household. Child support is intended to help offset the costs of a child’s care. It can cover clothing, medical expenses, extracurricular activities and other items that the child uses on a regular basis. It can also be used to help pay for a portion of the housing costs and utilities for the home where the child resides. Most states do not regulate how child support funds are used, and there is an assumption that the custodial parent will use the funds for the child’s needs. Both parents are expected to provide for the child’s support. However, usually one parent pays child support to the other parent.

Ways to Get Child Support

Child support may be agreed by the parties and one parent may make direct payments to the other parent or pay for certain expenses. Child support can also be court ordered. A father may petition to establish paternity and then be ordered to pay child support, or the mother or guardian may petition the court for child support.

Child Support Calculations

The amount of child support that must be paid is usually based on child support guidelines. These guidelines may look at one parent’s income or both parent’s income and then apportion a certain percentage of the child support obligation to one parent. The amount of child support is usually based on what the state determines to be the child’s need for financial support based on the parents’ income and the number of children. The child support table amount may be the base amount, subject to an increase or decrease based on additional expenses or special circumstances.

Federal Crime of Failure to Pay Child Support

It is a federal crime under certain circumstances for an individual to willfully fail to pay child support. This is a federal crime when a person willfully fails to pay child support when it has been ordered by a court for a child who lives in another state. Additionally, the crime can be federally prosecuted if child support is past due for longer than 12 months or if it exceeds $5,000. A violation of this law is considered a misdemeanor and includes a maximum penalty of six months in prison and fines. If the child support is overdue for longer than two years or the amount unpaid is $10,000 or more, the crime is considered a felony, potentially resulting in up to two years in prison and fines.

It is also a federal crime for a person to cross state lines or flee the country to try to avoid paying child support that is at least one year or $5,000 past due.

State Penalties

Besides where federal law may be involved, child support enforcement is handled by state and local authorities. State laws may target parents who willfully fail to pay child support. These laws usually distinguish situations in which parents choose not to pay from situations in which a parent cannot pay due to disability, illness or other extenuating circumstances. Increasingly, states use more aggressive enforcement mechanisms to pursue unpaid child support from parents who choose not to honor their child support obligations. There is strong public policy behind these efforts, such as wanting to prevent children from becoming dependent on public benefits.

Sometimes states may put together operations to go after so-called “deadbeat parents” in a massive hunt. These efforts may try to unearth hidden assets, prove voluntary unemployment or use other ways to avert their responsibilities. In some cases, the parents who do not pay child support are wealthy individuals who have substantial assets. These parents may be prosecuted under a state statute. For example, California illegalizes the act of willfully failing to furnish necessary clothing, food, shelter or medical need. This offense can result in a maximum fine of $2,000 and a year in county jail.

Contempt of Court

In addition to potential punishment under a state or federal statute, a person who ignores a court order to pay child support can be penalized by a contempt of court action.

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