As of January 2018, there are 13.6 million custodial single parents in the U.S., and around half ask for child support—either through the courts or informally (though primarily through the courts).
In 2015, Americans owed $33.7 billion in child support. The average person owed $5,760 for the year, but only paid $3,447 (around 60 percent). In other words, missing child support payments is relatively common.
However, just because you can’t afford child support doesn’t mean you don’t need to pay, especially if your ex has a court order.
So what do you do if you can’t afford those monthly payments? Keep reading to learn more.
Can’t Afford Child Support? Talk to Your Ex First
Child support funds go towards keeping your child healthy and happy. The courts take them seriously, and so do states.
Both of those facts mean it’s a good idea to talk about your finances rather than hide or skip payments.
Talking to your ex won’t change any legally binding agreements. However, it will relieve some of the tension if you are paying less than what you owe or you’re missing payments. It also gives them time to prepare for a lower child support payment and find a way to make up the income they won’t get from you that month.
If your inability to pay is the result of job loss, disability, or illness, then you can also talk to your ex about potentially modifying your child support agreement to reflect your new income.
However, you should only modify your child support payments if your loss of income is semi-permanent or permanent.
Don’t Skip Payments and Try to Skip Town
When you can’t afford child support, it’s tempting to skip the payment.
The problem with this is that when you have court-ordered child support, the government tracks your payments. Your state child support agency will consider your payment late the day after it’s due. You can get a grace period if it’s in your child support order, but you still need to pay unless you can contest the payment in court. Even then, you will make catch up payments.
Skipping payments and not responding to court notices can lead to:
Withholding your wages
Liens on your property
Suspension of your driver’s license
Seizure of your tax refund
Even the U.S. State Department can get involved and deny you a passport. And if all this happens and yous till don’t pay, you can be held in contempt of court and sent to jail.
How to Modify Your Child Support Agreement
If you don’t have a formal, legal child support agreement, then you can change it as you see fit—whether your ex agrees. However, this is not a smart route to take because the money is to pay for your children’s living expenses.
It’s better to work it out between you first.
However, if your divorce agreement includes a legal child support contract, the only way you can modify it is through your state’s child support enforcement agency or the courts. Again, it’s better to initiate the conversation between you, but handshakes do not replace the official modification done through the agency or in the court.
A common misconception is that you need your ex’s agreement to ask for modification. You don’t. You can file court papers – usually a Complaint for Modification – on your own. If your ex agrees to the need for a modification, you’ll fill out a joint petition together.
The process often depends on what state you live in as each child support agency and court system may have its own procedures.
Again, communication is vital. As the parent who owes support, your participation in the process is essential if you want to avoid a contempt charge.
When Will the State Allow for Child Support Modifications?
Whether you can’t afford child support or the custodial parent wants more money, it’s important to note that you can’t just change a child support agreement on an ad hoc basis.
In fact, there’s no automatic review process available. It’s up to the two parents involved to monitor child support payments and request changes. Your child support order will even stay intact when they are 18 unless you notify the state.
You must not only have a substantial change in circumstances but be able to prove it, too.
Some of the most commonly accepted reasons for modifications include:
Change in child’s medical care needs
Substantial increase/decrease in one or both parents’ income
Paying parents’ illness or disability
Change in custody or residence
Remember that you’ll need paperwork for any of these items, so be prepared to show it.
When Should I Ask for Help if I Can’t Afford Child Support?
If you’re going through a difficult financial period, you need to ask for help or a modification right away.
In most cases, modifications aren’t retroactive. They only change the agreement going forward.
So if you lose your job in January and then ask for a modification in March after missing two payments, then your modification won’t change the two missed payments.
Be Honest and Do Your Best to Make Payments
Child support can be crippling, and if you have both a court order and a second household to run, then you aren’t alone in that you can’t afford child support.
You can modify your child support agreement when catastrophic circumstances occur (e.g., job loss, illness, disability), and you don’t need the other parent to approve. However, you need to consult a lawyer early and be honest throughout the process.
Remember, child support isn’t punishment. It’s your contribution towards raising your biological children. So, states take it seriously, and attempting to hide has severe consequences.
Did you find my guide helpful? If you’re a newly divorced parent, you might also like my post on how to protect your privacy on dating apps.