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Understanding the consequences of failing to pay child support

When a Massachusetts couple with one or more minor children decides to end their marriage or relationship, one of the parents will ordinarily be required to make regular payments to the other parent to ensure that the children’s basic needs are met. Some parents who are required to make such payments regard such orders as a nuisance that can be ignored at will. In Massachusetts, this assumption can result in heavy civil and even criminal penalties being assessed against the defaulting parent.

Many parents who are ordered to pay child support do not realize that court-ordered child support is a legal obligation that cannot be ignored. A parent who is entitled to receive child support payments has two basic options if the payor parent is significantly delinquent in making support payments. One option is returning to the court that issued the order and asking the judge to hold the delinquent parent in contempt. If the delinquent parent violates the order for contempt, the court can impose a fine in addition to requiring that all late payments be brought up to date. In extreme cases, the court can order incarceration for the delinquent parent, although this remedy may be counterproductive because it places a significant limitation on the parent’s ability to become current in support payments.

The state also provides a bureaucratic remedy in the Department of Revenue and Child Support Enforcement Division. The Department of Revenue can withhold late payments from the parent’s paycheck, seize personal property, add interest and penalties and seize tax refunds. The Department can also seek an order for contempt from the court if other collection methods are unavailing.

Occasionally, the parent who has been ordered to make support payments will have a legitimate excuse for the tardy payments, such as the loss of a job, a reduction in salary or unexpected medical bills. In such cases, the court may be willing to reduce the amount of monthly payments either temporarily or permanently. The services of a knowledgeable divorce attorney can provide valuable assistance for anyone caught in a child support dispute.