Like most states, California family courts prioritize the best interests of children when spouses seek a divorce. This includes child support orders, typically paid by the higher-earning parent to the lower-earner with the intention of providing for the children in the manner they’re accustomed to with the least amount of disruption to their lives.

The amount of child support may be negotiated and agreed to by both parents before the divorce becomes final, or a judge must make the decision. Regardless of how the order comes about, once a judge issues the order, the paying spouse must abide by it or face significant legal consequences and penalties as well as accrued interest and negative credit reporting.

Child Support Enforcement in California

Once an order for child support is in place, the California family courts expect the paying parent to keep up with payments. There are several ways the state enforces payment and collects late payments in order to keep children from suffering the consequences. Typically, the first step begins when the receiving parent files a motion for contempt against the spouse for non-payment, after which the court holds a hearing. When the court finds that back payment is owed in the case they may enforce child support in one or more of the following ways to collect back payments:

  • Garnish the spouse’s wages
  • Suspend their driver’s license until they pay the amount owed
  • Place liens on any property they own
  • Withhold tax refunds and other government payments
  • Order the sale of property belonging to the owing parent

If these attempts to collect on back child support payments fail, the court serves a document to the spouse ordering them to attend a hearing. At the hearing, the spouse may provide a defense by attempting to explain why they did not deliberately fail to pay or why they did not file a motion with the court to modify support payments if they had a significant change in circumstances that made payment difficult or impossible. A Los Angeles child support attorney may help to determine what, if any, evidence can be used to show that the parent was unable to pay due to incapacitation, or inability to pay legal fees to request a modification.

If the spouse does not attend the hearing, the court may issue a warrant for their arrest.

Civil and Criminal Penalties for Non-Payment of Child Support

If a parent consistently fails to make child support payments or pay the back amount owed and does not attend the hearing, a judge may issue a civil arrest warrant. Penalties and jail time for unpaid child support include the following:

  • A fine of up to $1,000 and 5 days in jail
  • Further fines and up to 12 months in jail for continued non-payment

Continued contempt of court for parents who fail to pay child support may escalate the consequences from a civil arrest warrant to:

  • A criminal warrant if the defendant owes $2,500 or more in unpaid child support
  • Felony charges and up to 2 years in prison for $10,000 or more in unpaid child support

Because the courts understand that a jailed parent cannot earn the money needed to pay child support, they typically attempt to collect in a variety of ways before resorting to penalties with jail time.

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