Your bills are piling up, your kids need new shoes, new clothes, and money for their activities, but your child support check is nowhere to be found. If this scenario describes you, you are not alone. The total amount of unpaid child support in the United States in 2011, the last year for which data was readily available, was $14.3 billion dollars.
Of course, if you are one of the unlucky people whose ex isn’t paying child support, or is only paying a fraction of the amount that is due, it’s small comfort that hundreds of thousands of other custodial parents are in the same boat. You need money – not sympathy!
Unfortunately, no one has a magic wand they can wave over your ex and make your past due child support magically appear, but there are some steps you can and should take if your child support checks stop coming in.
5 Steps To Take When Your Ex Doesn’t Pay Child Support
1. Talk to your ex.
Yes, I know how hard this is. For some of you – those whose ex is awol, or violent, or who refuses to talk to you at all – talking to your ex may be impossible. If that’s you, go ahead and skip to step 2.
But, if you can talk to your ex at all, it makes sense for you to find out the reason why he isn’t paying support, especially if he had been paying support in the past, but then suddenly stopped.
Maybe your ex got laid off or lost his job. Maybe he got sick. Maybe he crashed his car and has hospital bills to pay. Or maybe he is just being difficult. Whatever the reason that he stopped paying child support is, it would be for the best if you could find out why.
Why should you care what his reason is? Because it matters. If your ex is not paying because he can’t pay you then you need to immediately skip to step 2 and start working on a way to close your financial gap until he gets back on his feet. No matter what you do to get money from him when he is down and out, you can’t get blood from a turnip.
If your ex is honestly unable to pay you, by talking to him you may be able to make a deal that he will, at least, pay you a little something until he gets back on his feet. After that, he can make up the difference in what he owes you.
If you find that your ex is not paying you simply because he doesn’t want to pay you, or because he doesn’t think he needs to pay you, or because he thinks you will just “let it go,” then it is time to consider stronger measures.
2. Get a “Plan B” for covering your financial gap as soon as possible.
No matter why your ex is not paying you, you need to get a “Plan B” in place for covering your financial situation as soon as possible. That means that you are either going to have to find a different way to bring in more money, or you are going to have to cut your expenses. If you are lucky enough to have a wealthy family member who is willing to step in and cover your financial gap for awhile, that can work, too.
The unfortunate truth about collecting past due child support is that generally speaking, it takes time – often a lot of time. Whether you are chasing your ex down in court or riding out his wave of unemployment, you are still going to have to find a way to pay your own bills in the meantime.
3. Talk to a lawyer about your options.
Regardless of whether you decide to take your ex back to court or not, you still need to know what your options are. You need to know, from a lawyer, what your legal rights and responsibilities are. You need to know how much your lawyer estimates that going to court will cost you, and how long it will take to collect what is owed to you.
Once you have the legal information you need to make a decision about your next step, you need to analyze that information from a business perspective. It may suck that your ex has not paid what he owes. But if your he owes you $1,000, and the lawyer is going to charge you $2,000 to collect it, hiring a lawyer doesn’t make much sense.
If your ex is unemployed or working for cash under the table, and judgment proof, you need to seriously think about the time, energy and money you will spend chasing down the support he owes you, versus the amount of money you are realistically likely to collect.
If your ex has a job or has assets he can use to pay child support, then you have to decide whether you are up for taking him back to court. While dragging your ex into court for past due child support may be as appealing to you as getting a root canal without anesthetic, ultimately, if your ex will not voluntarily pay you, going to court to enforce your child support order is pretty much your only viable alternative.
4. Contact your local government child support agency.
There are government agencies in every state that are charged with collecting child support for you. If you don’t have the money to consult with an independent lawyer about child support, you might want to investigate having a government agency pursue your case.
Government agencies will typically enforce child support orders free of charge. They also may have child support enforcement tools available to them that local attorneys may not be able to access.
The problem with using a government agency to pursue your child support case is that they are beyond busy. So, if you choose to use a government agency to collect child support, you really need to find a way to survive without receiving support for a long, long time.
5. Use a private child support collection agency.
Given the amount of unpaid child support in this country, a number of private collection agencies will now go after your ex to get your back child support for you.
Private collection companies promise to be much more efficient and faster than government agencies. If your ex is hiding, they have private investigators who will work to find him. They will also help you calculate the proper amount of money you are owed, including any applicable interest on the past due payments.
Private collection companies typically work on a contingency fee basis. They keep a percentage of the child support they collect for you (typically about 1/3 of the amount collected) as their fee. If they collect nothing, you pay them nothing.
BONUS TIP: The 5 steps listed above are what you CAN do to try to collect past due child support. The one thing you CAN’T do is prevent your kids from seeing your ex if he owes you money. Child support and visitation are not interchangeable.