Parents in VA can face steep sanctions for failing to pay child support

Divorce poses a financial hardship for most families. It's not uncommon for divorced parents in Richmond to struggle to make their court-ordered child and spousal support payments. According to The Washington Post, in 2013 alone, 320,000 child support enforcement cases seeking to collect past due child support were opened or pending in the state. Unfortunately for parents who fail to make their payments for legitimate reasons, state law allows harsh sanctions for the violation of child support orders.

Methods of enforcement

The Virginia Department of Social Services states that the state Department of Child Support Enforcement can take several steps to obtain overdue child support payments or incentivize parents to make those payments. These actions include:

  • Directly collecting payments through income garnishment and the interception of tax refunds
  • Taking administrative actions, such as suspending driver's licenses and professional licenses
  • Reporting the owed debt to credit agencies
  • Placing liens on the supporting parent's property

If these measures are not effective, the DCSE may turn to criminal sanctions, and parents may face up to 12 months in jail. While this is not the most common outcome, it still affects many Virginians; according to The Washington Post, 6,000 of the 320,000 child support enforcement cases logged in 2013 resulted in jail sentences.

Although jail time may be a significant deterrent for parents who have the ability to make support payments, it may only worsen the situation for parents who already face financial hardship. In Virginia, child support obligations don't stop during incarceration; parents keep accumulating debt while imprisoned and unable to work. This can contribute to an ongoing cycle that is difficult for struggling parents to break.

Addressing inability to pay

The Washington Post reports that Virginia is exploring ways to help supporting parents address the factors that are preventing them from fulfilling their obligations. In 2008, the state started a pilot program in which child support enforcement workers help parents find job leads. This program is now used in 31 courts. The state has also started working more closely with parents who are about to be released from incarceration for failure to pay support.

Despite these measures, it remains ideal for parents who cannot fulfill their child support obligations to address the situation through the proper channels, rather than risking sanctions such as incarceration. Requesting legal modification of the existing support order is the only way that parents can be certain of avoiding the sanctions associated with failure to pay support.

Child support may be modified on various grounds. If one parent's income or the expenses associated with caring for the child change by at least 25 percent, modification may be appropriate. One parent's failure to follow the custody and visitation arrangement established in the custody order may also provide grounds for modification.

Revisiting child support orders

The DCSE reviews child support orders every 36 months to ensure that the amounts specified are still appropriate. However, parents who are struggling to pay child support due to substantial changes in financial situation may benefit from taking action sooner. Any parent who is in this situation should consider consulting with an attorney to get information about changing their support obligation and whether or not their individual circumstances might justify a change in the ordered support amount.