What Happens When an Ex-Spouse Refuses to Pay Child Support?


by Chris Torrone



You’ve been through the divorce process, you’ve spent countless hours and resources in and out of court to ensure that your child’s best interests are protected, and you’ve come to a legal agreement that will ensure that your child is provided for through child support payments from your ex. And then the checks stop coming. 

For a parent who is working hard to provide for their child, it is devastating when their ex chooses to fight the child support arrangement rather than keeping the child’s best interest and financial needs a priority. When a parent fails to uphold the agreed-upon child support arrangement, it can be emotionally and financially draining for the custodial parent. On top of that, figuring out how to navigate the process of having child support legally enforced can be frustrating and time-consuming. 

Here are ways to get your child support agreement enforced in Washington State and ensure that your child receives the resources they deserve.

Protect yourself with the facts

Because child support is a legal court order, there is nothing you can personally do to enforce it. However, being aware of the consequences of not paying child support is an important first step in the process of enforcing child support. Understanding the legal ramifications can increase your confidence if you are dealing with an ex who may try to manipulate you or otherwise use your lack of knowledge against you.

First, failure to maintain the child support payment plan may cause a judge to hold your ex in contempt of court. The judge may then order your ex to pay fines in addition to back-paying any child support that they are delinquent on. They may order a freeze on financial accounts or a lien on a business or personal property, which can then have a negative impact on their credit score. Their driver’s license, passport, professional license or occupational licenses may be revoked. They can also have their income or tax refunds garnished. If your ex has been repeatedly late on child support, then an extreme consequence is jail time. One or more of these consequences may be used to enforce child support.

Calmly remind your ex of these facts, preferably in writing so that you have documentation of your interaction with them. Letting your ex know that you are aware of the consequences and prepared to take legal action may be enough for them to get caught up on their child support payments.

parent receiving advice from lawyer regarding child support

Get your lawyer involved

If your ex refuses to pay, regardless of the consequences, then your next step is to contact your family law attorney. Take the time to compile documents of proof for your lawyer so that you have them ready when you meet in person, or share the files with them in an electronically secure way in advance of your meeting. You can start by asking your family lawyer to write a letter to your ex outlining the consequences of disobeying a court order for child support. 

Having your attorney communicate with your ex on your behalf both protects you and demonstrates to your ex that you are serious about pursuing legal enforcement. It also provides more proof and a legal paper trail that you can use if you choose to pursue the enforcement of child support.

If a letter from your family law attorney has no effect on your ex, your next step is to work with your attorney to file an enforcement action in court. This is the legal process of asking a judge to make your ex follow the child support order and make the required payments. The judge will then determine what penalties your ex will incur, which for a first offense may result in them being found in contempt of court and/or ordered to pay a fine in addition to child support payments. As mentioned above, repeated offenses may cause your ex to face higher fines or even jail time.

Avoid common mistakes 

While in the process of getting child support enforced, be sure to do your due diligence in following the child custody agreement as it applies to you. A custodial parent may try to keep the non-custodial parent from spending time with their child, or threaten to withhold time with their child until the child support is paid.

father spending time with children while he remains current on child support

This is a mistake because then you may be found in contempt of court for taking parenting time away from your ex in defiance of your parenting plan. Even when your ex is not paying child support, the position of the court is that your child deserves to have time with each parent; taking time away from one parent is an unfair consequence that could negatively affect your child. It will only help your case to keep yourself in good standing with the court. Always stick to the legal parenting plan unless you feel that your child is in danger, and if that is the case get your family lawyer involved immediately.

Another common mistake is to let the non-custodial parent get behind on child support out of misplaced compassion for a decrease in their income. If your ex has lost their job or is otherwise dealing with financial hardship, the best thing you can do is work with them to file a child support modification. If you know that they are doing their best to provide for your child with the resources they have, then a modified child support agreement will keep them in good standing while ensuring that the child support requirement is appropriate for their income level. Remember that until the child support modification is approved, your ex is still required to stick to the current payment plan.

If you only have a verbal agreement with your ex to waive child support payments for a period of time, then they have no legal protection if the court finds out that they are delinquent on payments. The court will most likely not acknowledge a verbal, or even a written, agreement between you and your ex. They will only take into account the court-ordered child support agreement and both parent’s legal obligation to provide for your child. Your ex may be put in a worse financial position because you made a joint agreement but did not take the time to make it legal in court. So if you have a good co-parenting relationship with your ex, encourage them to go through the appropriate legal channels first before making any changes to the terms of your parenting plan or child support arrangement.

At Torrone Law, our family law attorneys will work with your children’s best interest in mind. We can help you legally enforce child support or submit a child support modification request to ensure that your child gets the financial support they need in order to thrive.

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