Family Law

Pay Child Support or Face an Arrest Warrant

By Lina Guillen, Attorney
After a separation or divorce, both parents have an ongoing duty to support their children. What happens when one parent fails to pay court-ordered child support? Find out more below.

How do I Establish Child Support?

When parents are divorcing—or separating, if they were never married—they'll need to make decisions about custody and child support. Child support is meant to cover the child's financial needs and allow the child to live, as closely as possible, at the same standard of living that was established before the divorce or separation. Usually, the parent that has less time with the child and earns more, pays financial support to the custodial parent.

Child support is always part of a divorce action involving minor children, but single or unmarried parents can get support orders too. Child support service offices can help parents establish, enforce, collect, and modify child support orders. You can find your local agency through the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE).

Parents can agree on a child support amount, but they should have their agreement approved by a judge and incorporated into a child support order—courts enforce orders, not agreements between parents.

What Happens When the Other Parent Won't Pay Child Support?

Because child support is based on the child's needs, these payments are essential to a child's physical and emotional well being. Without support payments, a custodial parent may be unable to provide the child with food, clothing, or shelter.

Far too many parents fail to pay court-ordered child support—they may skip a month, pay late, pay too little, or just stop paying altogether. In 2012, the OCSE determined that $108 billion (yes billion) was owed in unpaid child support, nearly half of which was owed to the taxpayers supporting children on public assistance. If a child needs public assistance because the noncustodial parent fails to pay, the government can seek reimbursement from the nonpaying parent.

In recent years, state and federal legislatures have zeroed in on child support issues and passed laws aimed at helping families establish and enforce support orders. Today, the consequences for "deadbeat" parents that fail to pay child support can be serious, and they range from fines to jail time.


Parents who don't pay child support may face a variety of penalties. They vary a bit by state, but typically include:

  • Wage Deductions – child support is taken directly out of the parent’s wages.
  • Federal Income Tax Intercepts – the state can intercept a tax refund to cover child support payments.
  • License Suspensions – the state can suspend or revoke driver’s licenses and professional licenses.
  • Passport Restrictions – The U.S. Department of State can deny passport renewals.
  • Liens – courts can issue liens on property to pay child support.

Warrants and Jail Time

A warrant gives the police authority to arrest someone. In child support cases, there are two kinds of warrants.

A judge issues a civil warrant when a custodial parent files a complaint against the noncustodial parent for contempt of court (disobeying the court's order to pay support). The noncustodial parent must appear in court, where a judge will order payment, a fine, jail time, or all three: Jail time is typically a last resort, used after several attempts to get the parent to obey court orders.

Criminal warrants are issued when state or federal prosecutors get involved in a child support case. On the state level, the local district attorney's office handles criminal child support matters. On the federal level, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) investigates criminal child support cases. If the case meets certain standards under the "Deadbeat Parents Punishment Act," a joint task force—made up of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), the OCSE, the Department of Justice, and the OIG—prosecutes the case. Usually, this happens when a parent owes a lot of unpaid support for a long period of time—at least $5000 owing for a year or more. Parents found guilty of criminal non-payment may face fines and imprisonment.

Today, no one is immune to punishment for failure to pay child support. From average Joes to celebrities, parents can be fined, jailed, and ordered to pay support.

Just ask former Chicago Bulls star, Dennis Rodman, who was found in contempt of court and ordered to pay almost $500,000 in back child support. In 2013, a court held actor Skeet Ulrich in contempt for failing to pay over $280,000 in child support. And in 2015, Darius McCrary was arrested for failing to pay $5,500 in child support: He was released after he made payment. Here's a list of 14 other deadbeat celebrities.

How to Deal With Child Support Responsibly

For parents with child support obligations, the best advice is to make your payments on time. If you're having financial problems, don't stop sending your payment without notifying someone. You should:

  • contact your local child support enforcement agency, and ask about setting up a temporary payment plan, and
  • talk to a lawyer about modifying your support payments.

Parents who aren't receiving child support payments should:

  • talk to the other parent, if possible, and contact your local child support enforcement agency
  • talk to a lawyer about collection options, such as garnishing the parent's wages, and
  • consider filing a contempt action.

Cooperation is better than conflict when it comes to child support, and your lawyer can help you avoid an arrest warrant. The law takes children seriously—parents with support obligations should too. For advice on your situation, speak to a local family law attorney.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I have to keep paying child support if my ex remarries?
  • Who has to pay for court costs and other fees for a civil arrest warrant?
  • Is a prosecutor required to file criminal charges against a parent who owes thousands of dollars in child support?
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